When Apple launched the Apple Watch in 2015, it was business as usual for a company whose iPhone updates had become cultural touchstones. Before the watch went on sale, Apple gave the first versions to celebrities like Beyoncépresented it in fashion publications like Vogue and broadcast a sensational event on the Internet touting its features.
But as Apple prepared to sell its next generation of laptops, the Vision Pro augmented reality device, it entered the consumer market much more quietly.
The company stated in a press release this month that sales of the device would begin on Friday. No major product event was planned, although Apple created an eye-catching advertisement for the device and offered one-on-one demonstrations to technical evaluators. And in a departure for the secret society, the Vision Pro was tested with more developers than previous Apple products to see what they like and what they don’t like.
The toning down of marketing tactics speaks to the challenges facing Apple, a company that has grown so much over the years that new product lines that could one day be worth billions still represent only a fraction of Apple’s sales. ‘iPhone, which exceeded 200 billion dollars last year.
Apple’s low-key approach to the Vision Pro also speaks to the challenges associated with selling a device that could still take years to appeal to mainstream consumers. Besides explaining what the Vision Pro can do — as it does with every new device — Apple must overcome its hefty $3,500 price tag, as well as mutated interest in augmented reality gadgets that blend digital worlds and physical. Another challenge: the three-dimensional experience offered by the device can only really be understood through demonstrations.
Apple’s solution is to take it slow and get developers interested in those who can create apps that work with the Vision Pro. The company is expected to introduce the device to more customers after reducing the price and improving the technology.
Analysts expect Apple to sell around 400,000 units of the Vision Pro this year. On the other hand, the company sold around 12 million Apple Watches in 2015, according to analysts.
“Apple knows this product is not ready for mainstream use,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at Deepwater Asset Management, a technology investment and research firm. “It would be out of place for them to make a big noise.”
Apple declined to comment.
The Vision Pro lasted nearly a decade and cost billions of dollars to develop. The device, which resembles ski goggles, uses cameras and sensors to track people’s eyes and hand movements as they interact on the headset’s screen with three-dimensional digital objects like apps and screens computer. It can also record three-dimensional video and play movies on screens as large as those in a movie theater.
“This is the first Apple product that you look at without looking,” Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said in June during the product presentation.
But augmented reality devices are having trouble attracting consumers. Last year, the tech industry sold 8.1 million augmented reality headsets, down 8.3% from the previous year. according to IDC, a market research company. Since entering the market in 2014, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has sold Oculus and Quest headsets for video games and virtual meetings. Sony, Microsoft and Varjo, a Finnish company, also have augmented reality devices.
Apple has attempted to distinguish its device from competitors who have described their products as gateways to the metaverse. Rather than using the term, coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” Apple called its augmented reality experience “spatial computing.”
In its helmet guidelines, Apple asked developers it is not a question of designating the applications they create as virtual reality or augmented reality products, but as spatial computing applications.
“They maintain complete control,” said Grant Anderson, chief executive of Mirror Landscapethe creator of an augmented reality application for tabletop games.
Since the unveiling in June, Apple has been courting developers who it hopes will create apps for the device. He created testing labs around the world where developers could try the product.
In August, Cristian Díaz, an engineer at Monstarlab, visited a Vision Pro laboratory in Munich. After passing through a secret door marked with an Apple logo, I joined several other developers who were each equipped with headsets and given six hours to test their applications and write code in the system.
Mr. Díaz said Apple engineers asked developers for their feedback on the device, including how the software and development tools worked. They took notes. When Mr. Díaz returned for a second lab experiment in London in September, he said, it was clear that Apple had made improvements based on the feedback.
Among the changes, Apple allowed its engineers to monitor what developers were doing inside the headsets by connecting to them with Apple’s wireless communications tool, AirPlay, Mr. Díaz said. This allowed engineers to help developers resolve issues as they worked on their applications.
“We were like animals in a laboratory,” said Mr. Díaz, who called the Vision Pro “a great experience.”
This approach represented something of a departure for Apple. Under the leadership of co-founder Steve Jobs, the company largely avoided creating focus groups on its products because he believed Apple’s job was to figure out what customers wanted before they knew it .
Mr. Cook was more open to seeking feedback, said Phillip Shoemaker, who worked at Apple for seven years as head of the App Store. Under the leadership of Mr. Jobs and Mr. Cook, Apple tested its iPad and Watch products with select developers in Cupertino, California. But with the Vision Pro, the company presented a new product to foreign developers for the first time.
“Of all the products that can do this, a headset makes sense because it’s fickle,” said Mr. Shoemaker, executive director of Identity.com, an identity verification nonprofit. “They’re not for everyone.”
In addition to courting developers, Apple has worked with entertainment companies to equip the Vision Pro with TV shows, movies, music and sports. Disney made it possible to watch movies from a theater in its on-device streaming app, and Alicia Keys recorded an intimate performance in an immersive, three-dimensional video.
Content experiences will be key to broadening the device’s appeal, said Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst at Creative Strategies. Because headsets cut people off from the world, she said, Apple will have to give people reasons to spend time in a headset.
To generate consumer interest, Apple aired an ad on national television. THE spot shows extracts from famous films of people wearing helmets, including Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” and Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” It culminates with a woman shooting a Vision Pro.
The announcement is a reminder of original advertising for iPhone which showed TV and film clips of people answering phones, like Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”
Apple aired the Vision Pro ad during National Football League games, according to iSpot.tv, which measures ad spending. Apple spent $6.4 million there during the second week of January. For comparison, he spent $9.3 million an iPhone ad in the first week after the release of the iPhone 15 last September.
“Is this a product that will be ubiquitous? No,” Ms. Milanesi said. “It will be a product that will take time.”