When Apple unveiled its ambitious and very pricey new mixed reality headset earlier this week, executives ticked through a long list of impressive specs, teased big name partnerships and showed off a perfectly produced promo video.
But there was one thing Apple’s execs did not do during the keynote presentation: wear the device. Even reporters who got early access to try on the device were asked by the company not to take pictures of the experience.
The omission has not gone unnoticed. Some industry watchers have suggested that Apple CEO Tim Cook and others may have made a conscious choice to avoid seeing silly pictures of themselves with headsets turned into memes online. But behind this speculation is a more serious potential problem: even Apple may struggle to make VR headsets look cool.
Over the past decade, headsets have developed a reputation for being bulky and strange looking. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus (later acquired by Facebook), was widely mocked and memed in 2015 after being shown on a Time Magazine cover wearing a black headset with his legs bent, arms raised and head tilted up. He looked as though he would fly away at any moment.
It’s not just headsets. Silicon Valley has struggled with the optics of other gadgets people wear on their face, too. An image of tech evangelist Robert Scoble wearing Google Glass in the shower had such a profound impact on the discourse around the product that then-Google CEO Larry Page once joked to him: “Robert, I really didn’t appreciate the shower photo.”
For Apple, the stakes are high to avoid similarly embarrassing visuals. The new headset, which blends both virtual reality and augmented reality, is Apple’s most ambitious – and riskiest – new hardware product in years. And there are already a long list of challenges the company must overcome, including a high price tag ($3,500) and an unproven market littered with rivals who have so far failed to achieve mainstream success.
In keeping with its usual playbook, Apple is leaning on its design, hardware and marketing chops to convince people to spend thousands on the device. As many viewers were quick to point out during Monday’s event, the headset looks like a pair of designer ski goggles. In one early marketing image, a woman is shown wearing the headset while dressed in very chic clothing and lounging in an upscale living room.
But not everyone is convinced.
“They’re certainly not sleek. They are trying to be sleek, but it’s a big pair of goggles on your face,” Lisa Peyton, an extended reality and experiential marketing professor at the University of Oregon, told CNN. “I would not wear that thing around outside — nobody will. Nobody will be wearing it around outside, and they know that.”
The tech giant is known for its powerful marketing, including iconic campaigns that popularized its original Macs, iPods and the iPhone. Apple’s silhouette ads in the early 2000s somehow managed to make not just iPods look cool, but also wired headphones. But Apple may still be fighting an uphill battle with its headset.
“It’s not that Apple takes the uncool and makes it cool. Apple typically takes the average and makes it cool, takes the mundane and make it cool,” Marcus Collins, marketing professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a former Apple employee, told CNN.
But the headset, like VR itself, is certainly not mundane or “conventional,” according to Collins, in the way a phone was before the iPhone. For most people, it’s likely still an abstract concept, and possibly a very odd one. Some may associate it with images of legless avatars and goofy visuals like Luckey on the cover of Time.
Perhaps with that in mind, Apple appears to be taking steps to distance itself from other VR products.
Apple executives omitted the phrase “virtual reality” entirely from the keynote event and instead focused on terms like “spatial computing” and “augmented reality.” At the same time, the company is marketing its headset as a high end, exclusive product and perhaps hoping for it to become a status symbol.
Apple also made a unique design choice: the Vision Pro will display the user’s eyes on the outside of the headset. This way, “you’re never isolated from the people around you, you can see them and they can see you,” Alan Dye, vice president of human interface, said during the keynote. The feature could help the headset look like more of a fashion accessory than a sci-fi gadget.
For now, however, the audience for the device will likely remain limited to early adopters, developers and business customers who are able and willing to spend $3,499 on a first-generation gadget.
“This isn’t going to be everyone lining up at the Apple store to buy the new iPhone when it first came out. it’s not going to be that,” said Collins. Instead, he described Apple’s current approach as choosing to “dip your toe in the pool before making a big splash.”
With its loyal following and impressive track record on hardware, Apple may eventually be able to convince average consumers to buy future versions of the headset. But first, the device will need to get cheaper, and a little sexier.
“They know that the technology is going to get more compact, sleeker, and eventually they will be able to make a super sexy pair of glasses. I have no doubt,” Peyton said. “It’s going to be maybe two or three years away, maybe more than that, but they’ll get there.”