What could Apple's VR headset possibly do to justify its $3,000 price tag?

Without a killer app, it's hard to see how the Reality Pro headset would appeal to the mass market. Here's another theory about Apple's upcoming AR/VR product launch.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Person with futuristic glasses on staring at stars.

The rumor mills aren't calling the Apple device "glasses". They're still calling it a headset. So while Apple may manage to make the unit un-hateful, it's unlikely they're knocking it out of the park.

Liliya Krueger/Getty Images

Three thousand dollars. Not three hundred dollars. Not even one thousand dollars. Three thousand dollars. That's a lot of money to drop for something almost guaranteed to give you a headache, cause you to feel like you're going to barf, and make you look like a dork.

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All indications are that Apple is going to announce its fabled AR/VR headset on Monday at WWDC and that the product will cost $3,000. By contrast, Meta's soon-to-be-announced third-generation headset, the Quest 3, is likely to be priced under $500.

Competitive variables

Five hundred vs. three thousand? If Apple is going to showcase something at that price point, it better have more than a little somethin' somethin' going for it.

Also: The best VR headsets for gaming, the metaverse, and beyond

AR/VR headsets have only a few vectors for competitive advantage. Let's look at those:

Price: Apple has never really competed on price. It has always played up the feels, ecosystem integration, quality, exclusivity, and design. At an expected $3,000 launch price, Apple's not playing the price game.

Dorkiness: Most AR/VR goggles have been far closer in form factor to scuba goggles than Ray Bans. The closer Apple can come to making a headset that's more like glasses than a nightmare wart on your forehead, the better chance Apple has for success.

Weight: In addition to looking stupid, headset goggles are heavy. They can cause neck and back irritation if used for a long time.

Comfort: If you're going to strap a two-pound brick to your face, you need something to keep it in place. Over time, some of the AR/VR vendors have gotten better at increasing comfort, but keeping something that big, cumbersome, and heavy in place often means sacrificing comfort for rigidity and structure. Apple needs to find the sweet spot here.

Eye feel: Here, we're talking about adjusting the devices to compensate for pupillary distance, as well as how to handle folks who need prescriptions to see. Just how much eye strain will these things cause?

Connectivity: What powers the headset? Does it connect to a computer or have a little smartphone processor inside? Rumor has it that the Apple device will have an M3 Apple Silicon processor inside, but use some sort of belt pack for power. Because that's not dorky or uncomfortable.

Run time: This is a direct corollary to connectivity because run time is a function of either the efficiency and size of the battery, or a physical connection to wall power. In any case, it's how long you can operate the headset before it goes dark. Apple should do relatively well here because of its deep experience with battery technology.

It is possible that Apple will hit a home run on all six non-price factors by being willing to charge enough to make it work. If that's the case, one big set of objections will have been overcome.

Also: The 4 best AR glasses: Pro-level AR and XR headsets

But the rumor mills aren't calling the Apple device "glasses". They're still calling it a headset. So while Apple may manage to make the unit un-hateful, it's unlikely the company is knocking it out of the park.

Use cases

I'm wearing an augmented reality headset right now. I've worn it since my teens. My setup only has one app, vision correction, but that's been a killer app for me. To be clear, I'm talking about my glasses. I use them to watch TV, to drive, to use a computer, and sometimes when I work in the shop.

While I've recently paid only about $20 for my eyeglasses, I, like Jason Perlow, back in the day spent more than $700 for a special-purpose pair. Unfortunately, the Superfocus lenses that both Jason and I bought eventually broke, and the company went out of business. But while they worked, they were a big help.

Also: Meta Quest 3: Price, features, and when you can buy the new VR headset

Being able to see and work on my various computers was a huge productivity issue for me a decade ago, so it was worth the extra money to be able to get my work done and reduce eye strain. My setup and my eyes changed over time, and I can now use the same pair of corrective lenses for both distance and computer work.

My point is this: If there's a killer app, people will pay a higher price. I switched to Macs as my primary work OS because Final Cut Pro works only on Macs. Using Final Cut saved me a day a week over using Premiere Pro -- a huge productivity benefit that made the perceived (but not really accurate) added cost of the Macs worthwhile.

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So what's the use case for the new Apple headset? There are some obvious vertical examples, like education, remote field support, real estate sales, and medicine. But while there has been considerable uptake in the business world for Macs and iPhones over the last decade, Apple is still a broad-market player.

Is there a broad-market use for the Apple headset?

If this were still pandemic times, you might say that video conferencing is that killer app. The ability to be "there" and "face" to face with people in meetings might have made an Apple headset investment worth it. But we're not on lockdown anymore, and most companies are back to doing in-office business.

Gaming, assuming you don't puke, will undoubtedly be awesome in any of the modern VR headsets. Apple hosts a ton of games on iOS, so it's likely that gaming might be a win for the headset. But while folks might spend $500 for a gaming headset, they won't plunk down three grand. Without a doubt, gaming will be big on VR, but only once the price point and hardware become practical for the purpose.

Also: The best PC gaming headsets

One fascinating use case is being demonstrated by a company named Sightful, which produces a limited-release product called Spacetop. This is a laptop that ships without a screen. Instead, you use AR glasses to see what appears to be a wide-screen monitor. The power of this, both for portability and privacy, is fascinating. Interestingly, the glasses the company uses are not terrible. They seem fairly light and comfortable, even if they are tethered to the computer. The AR glasses and the laptop are $2,000.

Also: The best laptops you can buy

Beyond these applications, there doesn't appear to be a broad-market use for the Apple headset. This brings me back to my original question…

What would it take to justify paying $3,000 for Apple's headset?

ZDNET Editor in chief Jason Hiner says this: "We can be sure of one thing: If Apple launches a headset, it thinks it has a product that breaks new ground."

I agree. Apple doesn't ever settle for launching mediocre, also-ran products. There's always some kind of special sauce in its product definition. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that Apple will not be launching a headset -- at least, not for the consumer market.

Three thousand dollars, without a killer app -- or even with some killer app that Apple hasn't leaked yet -- isn't going to appeal to the mass market. Plus, many of us will be reticent to put a large object over our eyes for any period of time.

Also: Fitness isn't going to sell me on Apple's rumored Reality Pro headset

Here's what's more likely: Apple is launching a development kit for app developers and corporate clients who have related vertical applications. This is not unprecedented. At WWDC 2020, Apple launched the Apple Silicon Developer Transition Kit, which was a modded Mac mini running an early build of the then-new M1 processor.

WWDC is an ideal time to showcase the technology of the Reality Pro (what we expect Apple to name the headset). It's an ideal time to recruit developers to explore what they can do with it. It's also an ideal time to let those developers get their hands on, er, heads in one. This makes total sense, and any developer who has an app that might be able to leverage the AR and VR potential of an Apple headset is sure to leap at the chance to test it out.

I'm no longer developing iOS apps, so I don't really have a reason to buy a headset now. But once the final product is released, once we know how it plays with glasses-wearing users, and once it's priced under $1,500, then I'll give it serious consideration.

Of course, all of the above is conjecture. We'll know more on Monday. Do you think my prognostications are on target? If not, what's your prediction? Let me know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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