Apple's first foray into VR was 'quite lackluster'

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
Apple finally announced support for VR this week at its WWDC conference in San Jose, Calif.

This was the year virtual reality finally arrived on the Mac, but instead of making a splash, it landed with a bit of a thud. 

“With VR, Apple just basically said, ‘We support it now,'” argued Tuong Nguyen, a personal technology analyst at Gartner research. “That was quite lackluster in my opinion.”

At this week’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., Apple (AAPL) trotted out VR support in macOS along with new iMacs capable of handling VR. The news earned a subdued reaction — a light spatter of claps here and there — from the keynote audience on Monday. That’s despite a “Star Wars” game demo from Industrial Light & Magic where someone sporting a VR headset fended off a virtual Darth Vader on a dark futuristic planet.

Indeed, the timing of the announcements only appeared to reinforce Nguyen’s view that the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant takes more of a “wait and see” approach now than it did when Steve Jobs was CEO.

“I don’t think of Apple as leaders, necessarily,” Nguyen explained. “They’re fast followers, but smart fast followers. They introduce a lot of technology to the market 1-2 years after everyone else does and explain ‘this is why it’s cool,’ ‘this is why we’re doing the best,’ and ‘this is why you should be into it now.’”

Take, for instance, Apple’s highly anticipated Siri-powered speaker, the HomePod. Due out later this year, the HomePod represents Apple’s first foray into artificial intelligence-powered speakers. But the news came three years after Amazon (AMZN) released the first Echo speaker and at least six months following the launch of Google Home.

Adriana Ojeda uses an Oculus headset Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference on April 18, 2017 in San Jose, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Given that Gartner research estimates the combined VR and augmented reality industry will become a $29 billion market in 2020 — up from just $31 million two years ago — it’s perhaps no surprise that Apple is embracing the nascent technologies. 

But until this week’s VR announcement, third parties couldn’t even develop or run VR applications on a Mac. That’s despite the fact that VR headsets from companies like Oculus, Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Sony (SNE), and HTC have been widely available for over a year now. Facebook (FB), for instance, owns Oculus, which is blazing the trail for VR this round with its Rift headset, while Google released a headset of its own, the Daydream View last November.

“We can only hope by next WWDC, they [Apple] can give us something a little bit more exciting on the VR side, unless they simply don’t care,” added Nguyen. 

To be fair, it’s probably less that Apple doesn’t care about VR and more that the Cupertino tech giant took a beat to see whether the technology would gain some real momentum. VR, after all, has had many false starts in the past — remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy in the mid-1990s? — which went nowhere.

There’s also the unequivocal truth that VR headsets, even more recent streamlined devices like the Rift, still appear clunky to the average consumer. Given Apple’s aesthetic has always skewed sleek and minimal, it’s no surprise the company Steve Jobs built was reluctant to embrace such a cumbersome-looking piece of technology.

Yet they did. In the press demo area at WWDC this week, Apple had several VR headsets hooked up to their new iMacs. And while most people shunned them to sample more exciting product announcements like the HomePod, the iMac Pro and even the 10.5 inch iPad Pro, it was Apple’s clearest acknowledgement yet that perhaps this time, VR is here to stay.   

And while Apple’s VR announcements this year were akin to dipping one’s toes in the proverbial pond (big bets these are not), if VR gains further momentum this year, you can probably expect more significant announcements from Apple at next year’s WWDC.