Apple’s Rumored VR Headset Has Sent Its Rivals Scrambling

If the company announces a highly anticipated VR headset at its upcoming Worldwide Developers Conference, it may validate work by other companies in the industry.
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks on stage at an Apple special event at Apple Park
Apple CEO Tim Cook is one of the company executives who will announce new products on Monday.Photograph: BRITTANY HOSEA-SMALL/Getty Images

Rumors that Apple will announce a virtual reality headset at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday have sent competitors into a frenzy. Meta announced its new Meta Quest 3 on Thursday. Lenovo released its latest ThinkReality VRX headset. Suddenly, a niche market that was struggling to capture a wide audience has many more eyes on it. 

Apple’s expected entrance into the VR world comes at a time when hardware sales and general interest in the metaverse dream are languishing. Some companies, like Meta, have invested heavily in the idea, even as the public has lost interest. Apple has stayed away from the metaverse, but interest in the company’s VR and AR plans has long loomed. Now, Apple may not eclipse competitors but instead back up their ideas and lead to more developments and uses for the tech. 

“It’s going to be a validation that this really is going to be the next chapter of technology and how we interact with it and consume it,” says George Jijiashvili, principal analyst at Omdia, a tech research and advisory firm. “If they pull it off in terms of making that headset really compelling and having actually useful apps and functions, then it will serve as a product that everyone looks up to.” 

But right now the sector is struggling. The VR and AR headset market saw a 54 percent decline from early 2022 to 2023, according to data from International Data Corporation, a market intelligence firm. More than half of people who bought Meta headsets reportedly stopped using them within six months. Apple’s debut could actually help its rivals rebound from those lows. Its announcement “brings a lot of attention to the market,” says Jitesh Urbani, a research manager at IDC. “It helps educate users. That’s what Apple does a fantastic job at.”

Apple has a reputation for bringing hardware to market that isn’t novel but ultimately dominates. The iPod became the top MP3 player; the iPhone killed the BlackBerry. Making a VR and AR headset is a bigger gamble in a niche market. Apple has teased that a major announcement is imminent, saying “a new era” will begin Monday and that the chance to “code new worlds” could be coming. Its last major hardware announcement was the Apple Watch, which took smartwatches mainstream and now dominates the market. 

Apple is rumored to be working on a $3,000 headset with high-end screens, eye- and hand-tracking, and a separate battery pack. Meta is updating its Quest to be thinner and with double the processing power of its predecessor. It will go on sale this fall for $500. The company will also drop its older Quest model’s entry price by $100 to $300 this weekend. If Apple’s rumored price point is true, it won’t be a competitor in the gaming world for now and will likely lure enterprise and developer customers. Lenovo’s headset lands in the middle, starting around $1,300. 

Other competitors vary in purpose and price. AR startup Magic Leap released a second headset for around $3,300 last year, with a focus on enterprise customers. The company is reportedly in talks with Meta about an augmented reality deal. There’s also Sony’s PSVR 2, which launched this year at $550. 

A challenge in VR is to get people outside of gaming to care. A high price for a nonessential device puts people off. But with Apple’s name in the game, more app developers may begin to invest resources and expand the uses for headsets, Jijiashvili says. But the company must also design a headset that isn’t too intrusive or uncomfortable for its wearer. 

An Apple headset may not find mass market appeal until it drops in price and proves itself with killer apps that stand out in the virtual world. But this is a moment for people to turn their attention back to VR and to see how uses outside of gaming may begin to take shape. Meta’s lower price should allow it to hold onto its market dominance for now, says Harmeet Singh Walia, a senior analyst at Counterpoint Research, a technology research firm. Even if the Apple headset can impress, it’s too far out of reach to become an overnight sensation. “I'm expecting something special, but it's not going to be an iPhone moment,” he says.