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Here's Why Apple Should Hold Off on Entering Virtual Reality

These are uncharted waters, and Cupertino should be in no rush to set sail.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Apple thinks virtual reality is “really cool” and, according to the Financial Times, has a secret team building headset prototypes.

We don’t know yet what, specifically, that secret team is doing. But considering the broad audience Apple tries to reach and the state of VR and adjacent technologies today, it would be premature for the company to enter the market now.

The lone device on the market, Samsung’s Gear VR, is still too geeky for most people. As The Verge’s Adi Robertson put it, despite solid and affordable hardware and an early batch of great content, “using it is a process of figuring out all kinds of fascinating ways it doesn’t work.”

Looking past the Gear VR, no other players appear to separate from the pack.

Google is beefing up its virtual reality team and already has Cardboard, an initiative aimed at creating and displaying 360-degree content on existing iOS and Android devices. Google says more than five million Cardboard headsets have been “shipped,” but a lot of those headsets were given away for free, for example by the New York Times last year.

An attendee of the Virtual Reality L.A. Spring Expo tries Sony’s Project Morpheus.
An attendee of the Virtual Reality L.A. Spring Expo tries Sony’s Project Morpheus.
Brett Garling for Recode

On the more expensive end of things, Sony, HTC and Facebook are planning to release headsets this year that will be initially targeted at gamers, costing hundreds of dollars. And that cost doesn’t include Sony’s PlayStation 4 or the expensive gaming PCs that will be required for HTC’s and Facebook’s devices.

Gamers have been asking for virtual reality video games for decades, but for the general public, VR remains a curiosity rather than a necessity. And though Apple has helped broaden the definition of “gamer” via its lucrative iOS App Store, on which games are the dominant category, its core customer has yet to demand a better way to consume 360-degree content, because she or he likely hasn’t yet consumed any.

With the iPhone, Apple convinced the world that flip phones, BlackBerrys and Treos were simply inadequate while presenting a major technological leap forward. With the iPad, the company resurrected and radically improved upon several generations of tablet PCs and even its own Newton, a tried-and-failed product category.

With the Apple Watch, it may have gotten in too early. The Apple Watch was a forward-thinking bet to get out in front of the wearables market, and if that was the goal, then it’s already working: Juniper Research says more than half of all smartwatches shipped last year were Apple Watches. But the jury’s still out on the entire category and whether Apple’s entree can turn it into an indispensable device.

The waters of virtual reality are even less well charted. We not only don’t know how many people want VR devices, but we also don’t know whether the ultimate winner — if there is one — will be an adjacent technology such as augmented reality or mixed reality.

Rather than trying to fight for gamers’ wallets against Oculus and Sony, the smarter play for Apple might be to gun for a consumer-y twist on Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses, which are arguably an easier sell to the masses than goggles that tie you down to a computer or a swivel chair.

Consumer familiarity with cellphones helped, rather than hurt, the iPhone. General unfamiliarity with smartwatches didn’t ease the Apple Watch’s lukewarm debut. Unless Apple has quickly conjured up a completely revolutionary take on virtual reality — unlikely, but stranger things have happened — it should sit this round out.

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