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Semafor LogoReed Albergotti
Reed Albergotti
tech

Apple’s new VR headset is running into some old problems

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Tech giants vying to sell virtual and augmented reality devices have come to terms with some of the clunky compromises that come along with sleek headsets, notably a waist-mounted battery pack.

But one of the field’s pioneers, Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz, told Semafor that he believes those companies could be headed for a “day of reckoning”  when it comes to intellectual property. Companies, he said, are “borrowing ideas.”

That’s one of many vulnerabilities that could be facing Apple, which has designed a waist-mounted battery pack for its upcoming virtual reality headset, as well as custom prescription inserts for people with glasses, according to The Information.

Both of those ideas are similar to Magic Leap’s product, which enjoyed years of hype as a possible mass-market product but is now being marketed as a professional tool for surgeons and other professionals. Magic Leap is now a cautionary tale and Apple appears to be encountering similar challenges.

Abovitz learned more about the pitfalls of building cutting-edge head-mounted displays than most. Augmented reality has the most potential to upend the tech industry because it could replace smartphones and computer monitors.

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But AR is also the most challenging, partly because of the difficulties of putting computers inside head-mounted displays and pairs of glasses. I asked Abovitz, who stepped down as CEO of Magic Leap in 2020 and is now running a technology startup called Sun and Thunder, what he thought in an email exchange, which has been condensed and edited.

Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Q: If it's true, what do the reports that Apple seems to be borrowing some of your ideas for its VR device tell you about the physics challenges that XR [VR and AR] still faces?

A: Some companies built significant and wide IP portfolios. It will be interesting to see how it all sorts out.

In terms of moving the computer (battery, CPU/GPU, memory, and more) away from the head and to the waist (or somewhere else on the body) - this is really guided by human biomechanics and physics. It is important to minimize the load on the human cervical spine and neck muscles. Battery density does matter — and we do not yet have a Moore's Law that is giving us the battery breakthroughs that everyone wants.

One day we may have digital optics that do all of the lens corrections with software and unique nanostructures. But I do not expect that will be mainstream for a few years.

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Q: Are there certain technological bottlenecks that need to be overcome before it's possible to build the product you saw down the stretch at Magic Leap and what are they?

A: The technology challenges are significant, and require billions in funding plus extremely talented, visionary, and focused teams.

Q: If you were going to build a mass market, consumer AR or VR device today, what would you build?

A: If I were to do another startup in XR, I think that XR gaming experiences can be absolutely amazing. I can see an amazing merger of the sports and video game markets that will be extraordinary, and also bring health/fitness benefits.

Q: You believed that any new consumer device needed a killer application, which is probably why you invested so heavily in content at Magic Leap. Your investments seemed heavily skewed toward fun. Meta (and reportedly, Apple) believe that the use case is more around video conferencing and work/productivity. What have you learned about what consumers actually want out of these products?

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A: The ultimate thing people want is as light and cool as a pair of Oakleys, with the full spectrum of life functionality (communication, social, games, work, play, music, film, TV, create, build) — with the ability to be AR, VR, and everything in between. It can all come together to make a wonderful experience happen. There will be a lot of utility and fun to be had on the road to this ultimate vision. When we get there, I can see billions of people blending this kind of computing into their daily life.

Q: What do you think is the mass market price point for AR/VR devices? And what can you build (with good margins) at that price point today?

A: In the ultimate XR I describe above, I can see pricing in the range of $499 - $2899+. This is a wide spectrum, but it will cover an array of OS systems, pro models, memory, CPU/GPU, style, etc. But the value proposition will be very strong: a device in that price range which replaces your phone, tablet, laptop, TV, movie theater, iMax theater, workspace, even certain travel — with supercomputing capability + AI. The cost/value ratio can be really strong.

What I describe here needs the sales volume to be in the tens of millions to hundreds of millions, which is why you see companies investing billions to tens of billions per year to create a market where this is possible. We are in the early Gemini phase, and the mass consumer world wants the Apollo, so it will cost many billions to get there.

The focus on enterprise now is all about getting through the Gemini phase for the reward of the Apollo (billions of users) phase. The innovative players are not focused right now on margins — they are building a market and investing heavily in the steps to building great future products.

Q: What will Apple have to do to make its VR(XR?) product a success in the marketplace? Is the challenge building enough content to make it worthwhile? Does it have to make a hardware product that blows every competitor out of the water?

A: I spent a lot of time imagining what they would do, and to a degree, I set about doing it — knowing that it is a long, hard, and very challenging road. For their XR products to succeed, I believe that they will have to have a lot of patience, a willingness to be bold and agile, and to get into the market with a system that is good, but not perfect.

They will have to be ok with the slow transition from their current business to a new mode of computing — one which could very much cannibalize almost all of the hardware they make (the classic Innovator's Dilemma). I do not believe that they need to "blow away every competitor" out of the water — they just need to be good, smart, and to promise a future of excellence for the everyday user, while delivering aspects of that excellence at each stage.

The content challenge is significant. It is a much bigger leap than transitioning from the PC to mobile — but a worthwhile leap.

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