Monday, May 20

Apple takes a humble approach to launch its latest device

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 early versions of it to celebrities like Beyoncé, featured it in fashion publications like Vogue, and streamed a spectacular event on the Internet trumpeting its features.

But as Apple prepared to sell its next generation of wearable computers, the Vision Pro augmented reality device, it marched much more quietly into the consumer market.

The company said in a press release this month that sales of the device will begin on Friday. No major product event was planned, although Apple created an eye-catching commercial about the device and offered one-on-one demonstrations of it to technical reviewers. And in a twist for the secretive company, Vision Pro has been tested with more developers than previous Apple products to see what they like and 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 are still a sliver of iPhone sales, which last year they exceeded 200 billion dollars.

Apple’s low-key approach to the Vision Pro also speaks to the challenges associated with selling a device that may still be years away from appealing to mainstream consumers. In addition to explaining what the Vision Pro can do, as it does with every new device, Apple must overcome its high $3,500 price tag, as well as flagging interest in augmented reality gadgets that blend the digital and physical worlds. Another challenge: The three-dimensional experience provided by the device can only be truly understood through demonstrations.

Apple’s solution is to slow down and drum up interest among developers who might create apps that work with the Vision Pro. The company is expected to bring the device to more mainstream customers after lowering the price and improving the technology.

Analysts expect Apple to sell around 400,000 units of the Vision Pro this year. In contrast, the company sold about 12 million Apple Watches in 2015, according to analysts.

“Apple knows this product is not ready for the masses,” said Gene Munster, managing partner of Deepwater Asset Management, a technology research and investment firm. “For them to make a big splash would be out of line.”

Apple declined to comment.

Vision Pro took nearly a decade to make and cost billions of dollars to develop. The device, which looks like ski goggles, uses cameras and sensors to track people’s eye and hand movements as they interact on the headset’s display with three-dimensional digital objects such as apps and computer screens. It can also record three-dimensional video and play movies on theater-sized screens.

“It’s the first Apple product that you look through and don’t look at,” Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said in June during the product reveal.

But augmented reality devices have struggled to gain traction among consumers. According to IDC, a market research firm, the tech industry sold 8.1 million augmented reality headsets last year, a decline of 8.3% from the previous year. 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 sought to distinguish its device from competitors who have described their products as gateways to the metaverse. Instead of using that term, which Neal Stephenson coined 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 reality or augmented reality products but as spatial computing apps.

“They are maintaining complete control,” said Grant Anderson, chief executive of Mirrorscape, the maker of an augmented reality app for board games.

Since its June reveal, Apple has been courting developers it hopes will create apps for the device. It set up test labs around the world where developers could try out the product.

In August, Cristian Díaz, an engineer at Monstarlab, went to a Vision Pro laboratory in Munich. After walking through a secret door marked with the Apple logo, he joined several other developers, each equipped with headphones and given six hours to test their apps and write code in the system.

Mr. Díaz said Apple engineers asked developers for feedback on the device, including on how the software and development tools worked. They took notes. When Mr. Díaz returned for a second lab experience in London in September, he said, it was clear that Apple had made improvements based on the feedback.

Among the changes, Apple gave its engineers the ability to see what developers were doing inside the headphones by connecting to them with Apple’s wireless communications tool, AirPlay, Díaz said. This allowed engineers to assist developers with troubleshooting while working on their apps.

“We were like animals in a laboratory,” said Díaz, who called Vision Pro “a great experience.”

The approach was something of a breakthrough for Apple. Under the leadership of co-founder Steve Jobs, the company largely avoided holding focus groups about its products because it believed Apple’s job was to figure out what customers wanted before they knew it.

Mr. Cook has been more open to seeking feedback, said Phillip Shoemaker, who worked at Apple for seven years, leading its App Store. Under both Mr. Jobs and Mr. Cook, Apple tested its iPad and Watch products with select developers in Cupertino, California. But with Vision Pro, the company brought a new product to developers abroad for the first time.

“Of all the products to do this with, headphones make sense because they are fickle,” said Shoemaker, executive director of Identity.com, an identity verification nonprofit. “They don’t look good on everyone.”

In addition to courting developers, Apple has partnered with entertainment companies to equip the Vision Pro with TV shows, movies, music and sports. Disney made it possible to watch movies from the theater in its on-device streaming app, and Alicia Keys recorded an intimate performance in immersive three-dimensional video.

Content experiences will be key to broadening the device’s appeal, said Carolina Milanesi, technology analyst at Creative Strategies. Because earbuds isolate people from the world, she said, Apple will have to give people reasons to spend time in one.

To increase consumer interest, Apple launched a commercial on national television. The ad shows clips from famous movies of people wearing headphones, including Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” and Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” It culminates with a woman wearing a Vision Pro.

The ad is reminiscent of the original iPhone commercial that featured TV and film clips of people answering the phone, like Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”

According to iSpot.tv, which measures ad spending, Apple ran the Vision Pro commercial during National Football League games. Apple immediately spent $6.4 million during the second week of January. By comparison, it spent $9.3 million on an iPhone ad in the first week after the iPhone 15 launched last September.

“Is this a product that will be ubiquitous? No,” Milanesi said. “It will be a product that will take time.”