When Apple launched the Apple Watch in 2015, it was routine for a company whose iPhone updates have become cultural touchstones. Before the watch went on sale, Apple gave advance models to celebrities like Beyoncé, featured it in fashion publications like Vogue and broadcast a glitzy online event highlighting its features.
But as Apple prepares to sell its next generation of wearable devices, the Vision Pro, an augmented reality device, it is entering the consumer market in a much more discreet way.
The company stated in a press release this month that sales of the device would begin this Friday (19). No major launch event has been scheduled, although Apple has created a captivating commercial about the device and offered one-on-one demonstrations to technology reviewers. And in a move for the secretive company, the Vision Pro has been tested with more developers than Apple’s previous products to see what they like and don’t like about it.
The reduction in marketing strategies reflects the challenges faced by Apple, a company that has grown so much over the years that new product lines that could be worth billions are still a small part of iPhone sales, which exceeded US$200 billion (R$ 985.4 billion) last year.
Apple’s low-key approach to the Vision Pro also reflects the challenges associated with selling a device that could still take years to attract mass consumers. In addition to explaining what the Vision Pro can do — as it does with every new device — Apple needs to overcome its high price of US$3,500 (R$17,240), as well as the limited interest in augmented reality gadgets that merge the digital and physical worlds. Another challenge: the three-dimensional experience provided by the device can only truly be understood through demonstrations.
Apple’s solution is to move slowly and pique the interest of developers who can create apps that work with the Vision Pro. The company is expected to introduce the device to regular customers after reducing the price and improving the technology.
Analysts expect Apple to sell around 400,000 units of the Vision Pro this year. By comparison, the company sold approximately 12 million Apple Watches in 2015, according to analysts.
“Apple knows this product is not ready for the masses,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at Deepwater Asset Management, a technology research and investment firm. “For them to do a big launch would be out of place.”
Apple declined to comment.
Investing in glasses
Vision Pro took nearly a decade to develop and cost billions of dollars. The device, which looks like ski goggles, uses cameras and sensors to track people’s eyes and hand movements as they interact on the headset screen with 3D digital objects such as apps and computer screens. It can also record 3D videos and play movies on screens that look as big as those in a movie theater.
“It’s the first Apple product where you look through it, not at it,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in June during the product’s unveiling.
But augmented reality devices have struggled to win over consumers. Last year, the technology industry shipped 8.1 million augmented reality headsets, down 8.3% from the previous year, according to IDC, a market research firm. Since entering the market in 2014, Meta, which owns Facebook, has been selling Oculus and Quest headsets for video games and virtual meetings. Sony, Microsoft and Varjo, a Finnish company, also have augmented reality devices.
Apple tried to differentiate its device from competitors who described their products as portals to the metaverse. Instead of using that term, coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” Apple called its augmented reality experience “spatial computing.”
In its headset guidelines, Apple asked developers not to refer to the apps they create as virtual or augmented reality products, but as spatial computing apps.
“They are maintaining complete control,” said Grant Anderson, CEO of Mirrorscape, maker of an augmented reality app for board games.
Since the reveal in June, Apple has been courting developers hoping to build apps for the device. It has created test labs around the world where developers can try out the product.
Listening to those who tested
In August, Cristian Díaz, an engineer at Monstarlab, went to a Vision Pro laboratory in Munich, Germany. After passing through a secret door with the Apple logo, he joined several other developers who were equipped with a headset and given six hours to test their apps and write code on the system.
Díaz said Apple engineers asked developers for feedback on the device, including how the software and development tools worked. They wrote it down. When Díaz returned for a second lab experiment in London in September, he said it was clear that Apple had made improvements based on his assessment.
Among the changes, Apple made it possible for its engineers to observe what developers were doing inside the headsets, connecting to them with Apple’s wireless communication tool, AirPlay, said Díaz. This allowed engineers to help developers resolve issues while working on their applications.
“We were like animals in a laboratory,” recalled Díaz, who called Vision Pro “a great experience.”
The differences between Jobs and Cook
The approach was something different for Apple. Under its co-founder Steve Jobs, the company largely avoided holding focus groups for its products because he believed Apple’s job was to figure out what customers wanted before they knew it.
Cook has been more open to seeking feedback, said Phillip Shoemaker, who worked at Apple for seven years leading its App Store. Under both Jobs and Cook, Apple tested its iPad and Watch products with select developers in Cupertino, California (USA). But with Vision Pro, the company brought an unreleased product to developers abroad for the first time.
“Of all the products to do this, a headset makes sense because a headset is complicated,” said Shoemaker, CEO of Identity.com, an identity verification nonprofit. “They don’t fit well at all.”
In addition to attracting developers, Apple worked with entertainment companies to equip the Vision Pro with TV shows, movies, music and sports. Disney has made it possible to watch movies from a theater on its on-device streaming app, and singer Alicia Keys recorded a performance in an immersive 3D video.
Content experiences will be essential to broaden the device’s appeal, said Carolina Milanesi, technology analyst at Creative Strategies. Because headsets isolate people from the world, she said, Apple will have to give people reasons to spend time in one.
To spark consumer interest, Apple has aired a commercial on US TV stations. The commercial shows clips from famous films with people wearing headsets, including Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” and Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” It culminates with a woman putting on a Vision Pro.
The ad is a throwback to the original iPhone commercial that showed TV and film clips of people answering the phone, like Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”
Apple has been running a Vision Pro ad during NFL games, according to iSpot.tv, which measures ad spending. Apple spent $6.4 million on the commercial during the second week of January. By comparison, it spent $9.3 million on an iPhone ad in the first week after the launch of the iPhone 15 last September.
“Is it a product that will be ubiquitous? No,” Milanesi said. “It will be a product that will take time.”