This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was defined by momentum. It demonstrated how virtual reality is accelerating into the mainstream, aided by the growing support of both hardware makers and game developers. It also illustrated a peculiar incoherence: the world’s hottest tech company and the world’s hottest tech trend are not, at present, in alignment. Apple doesn’t have a VR product or any sort of articulated VR strategy.
Virtual reality is like the second coming of PC gaming
To understand the business potential of VR, heed the words of Alienware co-founder Frank Azor. In a joint announcement with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey at CES, Azor described VR as the second coming of PC gaming. Alienware was founded in 1996 on the basis that it could charge a premium for creating personal computers that were tailored to deliver the best gaming experience. Now, nearly 20 years later, Azor sees the same impetus for PC purchases coming from VR applications. "Every form factor that we build," says the chief of Alienware and Dell’s XPS division, "will be with VR in mind."
Apple completely missed the mid-'90s gaming revolution. The company has recovered since then to become the world’s preeminent aspirational tech brand, and it now commands a broad and thriving iOS gaming marketplace, but for two decades, it’s been shut out from the premier games that have thrilled and amazed us on both PCs and consoles. Gaming on a Mac remains a bad joke today because of how badly Apple fell behind so many years ago.
How long can Apple afford to stay out of the developmental cycle for VR without falling drastically behind? Virtual reality experiences — whether they be games, roller coaster rides, geographic explorations, or creative simulators — hold incredible promise, but will require plenty of time to develop and refine. No one outside of Apple can develop for an Apple VR platform if it doesn't yet exist. Sure, some big names like Epic Games might be let in clandestinely, but a third-party software ecosystem only begins once a platform is out in the public.
Good things take time to build
Oculus has the early advantage thanks to its multi-generational all-star developer team, headed up by the 23-year-old Luckey and legendary programmer John Carmack (who, incidentally, helped catalyze the popularity of 3D video games with the release of the seminal Doom in 1993, a year after Luckey’s birth). Google’s Jump initiative is building an entire ecosystem to help VR filmmakers and to expand the library of 360-degree video footage available online. Microsoft will soon be distributing developer kits for its augmented reality HoloLens headset. Valve and HTC are deeply invested in making the HTC Vive a formidable Oculus Rift competitor, and Sony’s PlayStation VR is on the near horizon with an expanding library of supported games. Even Nokia is reinventing itself around VR. Where is Apple?
As with any other sphere of high-tech innovation, it's obvious that hardware and software and third-party developers will all need to work in concert to create compelling VR ecosystems. Whether you find yourself attracted by a Rift, a Vive, or a PlayStation VR headset, your reasons will be some mix of the comfort and quality of the device itself, the ease of its use, and the variety and enjoyability of the experiences on offer.
Integrating all the diverse elements of product design into a coherent and satisfying whole has been Apple’s hallmark for many years now, and it’s also Apple’s wont not to disclose any plans until it can present the world with a mature, polished, commercial product. But those habits were disrupted significantly in 2015 when almost everything Apple introduced was unfinished, imperfect, or in some other way in need of further improvement. 2015 was Apple’s beta year, and yet the company didn’t so much as hint at any virtual reality projects. The logical inference to draw is that Apple’s VR efforts haven’t yet reached even the beta stage.
Apple VR isn't inevitable, but it is logical
To this point, Apple has only conducted a few preparatory hires and acquisitions — the known ones are German outfit Metaio, for its augmented reality tech, and Swiss motion capture specialists Faceshift — and its intentions remain opaque. Given the Cupertino company’s history of rejecting broadly adopted standards like Blu-ray and Micro USB, it’s not out of the question that Apple might sidestep the entire virtual reality craze. It might be that Apple intends to do something more mobile-centric, a la Samsung and the Gear VR, or it has its eyes trained on augmented reality, like Microsoft.
And yet, the most likely scenario still seems to be that Apple will jump into the VR competition — because this is more than just another tech industry quest to invent novel reasons to sell more stuff. Virtual reality is the next computing platform, the next frontier in the way we interact with technology. Apple doesn't need to invent it from scratch, or to be first. The company prefers to allow a category to approach maturity before disrupting it, which is still a few years out for VR, though proper timing will be required to ensure it doesn’t get left behind with VR as it did with PC gaming.
The future of VR looks delightfully bright from the crispy morning window of January 2016. Oculus is no longer alone in offering awesome VR uses and experiences, and the competitive pressure from HTC, Sony, and Microsoft will help the pace of innovation and mass market proliferation. And as virtual reality speeds ahead, one of its most enigmatic questions will be whether and how it garners the support of the world’s most prominent tech company. VR doesn’t need Apple to succeed, and Apple doesn’t need VR to sustain its epic run of prosperity — though combining the two together seems like it’d help propel both on to bigger and better things.