“It just works.”
These three words stood smugly behind Steve Jobs at many press conferences during his second stint at Apple. It represented his desire for Apple to create simple, easy-to-understand products. It was this promise that was behind the cutesy advertising campaign “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” that started running 10 years ago, which aimed to convince PC owners that Mac computers were more accessible.
Apple is in a bit of a rut right now. Sales of the iPhone, Mac, and iPad are down, and so far, the Apple Watch hasn’t moved the needle in the way other recent Apple product launches have. Apple is in need of a new device that ties into its ever-growing ecosystem.
Given the amount of money Apple is spending on research and development these days, it’s almost certainly working on something big. There are reports and rumors that Apple has started exploring and perhaps is even working on some sort of virtual reality experience. But Apple works on a lot of things that aren’t about to hit the market—like a car—and if current consumer VR devices are anything to go by, it’s highly unlikely that Apple will be releasing a VR system anytime soon.
Virtual reality is simply too much of a hassle right now.
Even for all the supposed problems Apple has had recently with software design, and the underwhelming Apple Watch, the company would almost certainly never put its customers through the current process required to use VR. Here’s why:
Setting it up is too difficult
We recently received an HTC Vive at the office for review. I spent most of my spare time over the course of last week trying to set it up. To be fair, I never had more than a few hours at a time to dedicate to it. But what was the last piece of home technology you bought that required more than a few hours to set up?
First, you need to install two motion-tracking devices about 6.5 ft up on the wall. These require drilling, and need to be a rather specific distance apart. Other than mounting speakers, or perhaps a flatscreen TV—both of which are stylistic choices rather than necessary steps to get the tech to work—a power drill is rarely needed to enjoy a new gadget.
Then, you need to commandeer just about every power outlet in the room. Both sensors require constant power, as does the headset, and both handheld controllers need to be charged. Assuming you’ve plugged in a PC and computer screen to use the Vive on, you’ll need a total of seven outlets.
On top of this, there’s an Ikea-like manual for the myriad separate pieces that comprise the system. If you’re a jerk like me and just start connecting all the pieces, you’ll quickly find you’ll need to take everything apart and follow HTC’s instructions when you install the Vive software on your computer.
I’ve been told the setup process for the other major VR system—Facebook’s Oculus Rift—is simpler, but both still suffer from the next problem:
Installing things is hard
With the Vive, you’ll end up restarting your machine so many times that you may lose faith it’ll ever work. Quartz has a brand-new PC with the specifications required to run both the Rift and Vive, but for a while it felt like someone had made a mistake and not ordered a computer with enough power. After finally getting the software from HTC and Steam (a games marketplace, like the iTunes for videogames) running on the computer, and getting all parts of the Vive connected, I got VR working. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to get beyond the loading screen on the Vive. I was stuck in a midnight blue world, populated only by a distant representation of Earth, HTC’s logo, and the words “THIS IS REAL” floating in midair.
It seemed as if the machine couldn’t load up any games or configuration programs beyond the blue world. I checked web forums, and suspected at first that I’d set up the system wrong, putting cables in incorrect ports. I tried swapping HDMI cables, moving USB cables around, and restarting the computer. Intermittently, the computer thought the Vive was a second computer monitor, and I had to look through the headset to click on a few buttons to make the computer monitor the primary screen again. After figuring that problem out, I kept getting a warning from Steam that the “Compositor” couldn’t be loaded and so I wouldn’t be able to load anything. I had no idea what that was.
I had a feeling that it might have something to do with the graphics card, as VR systems require a separate, more powerful graphics card than the one most computers ship with. I ran through a litany of troubleshooting options from NVidia, the company that made the graphics card I was using, and forced every program on the computer to run using the NVidia card. That seemed to fix everything, and after days of trying, I was finally able to start playing with the Vive, and it really was an enjoyable experience. The games were fun, sometimes frighteningly realistic, and I didn’t want to stop playing.
But it all went wrong again the next day. I booted the computer up, plugged the Vive back in, and when I went to load games, they were loading on the computer, but not on the Vive. I gave up. After emailing and trying to live chat with the company’s customer support team (and never getting an answer out of them), I messaged HTC’s press team to ask them if they could help. A support person happened to be in New York, and he stopped by the office to see what I was doing wrong. In the end, he told me that it was a “fluke” that I’d gotten the Vive to work at all—the Vive and the computer monitor both needed to be plugged directly into the NVidia graphics card. But the card only had one HDMI slot, so I’d plugged the monitor into the computer’s regular HDMI port. This apparently confuses the computer, as it doesn’t know whether it should be using the internal graphics card, or the powerful NVidia.
The support person explained to me that the “Compositor” had nothing to do with the graphics card, but rather it was the name HTC had given to that blue world I was seeing. Much like the white room in The Matrix, it’s essentially a waiting room that the Vive loads games into—when it can’t connect properly to the Compositor, it can’t load any content.
I couldn’t find this anywhere in the documentation I’d reviewed, and Steam had no answers in its program.
(It’s worth pointing out that both the Rift and Vive are very new, first-generation products that are still in the process of fulfilling preorders. VR products will get better over time—likely very quickly—and both of these products are a lot of fun to use, once you get them set up. But our expectations for what new technologies can do seems to be heightening all the time.)
Both Oculus and HTC rely on Steam as their games platforms. The program is not particularly user-friendly—it’s laid out and designed like something you’d have expected to see when Napster was still the most popular music-downloading program. Apple generally prefers to build its own stores and content repositories—think iTunes, or the App Store—rather than relying on another company’s platform.
To play games in VR, you need to have the headset’s program running and Steam, and they need to be talking to each other. Apple isn’t likely to outsource such a crucial part of a customer experience, especially one that doesn’t have a polished user interface.
But the problem with that is, almost every major and independent developer runs their games through Steam. Unless Apple plans to renegotiate with all the publishers that have already signed deals with Steam, it’s going to continue to be the easiest place to buy games online.
One more thing
Apple does not have a good history with serious gaming. It tried to launch a games console called the Pippin in the mid-Nineties, with a group of licensees. It was pretty much obliterated by Nintendo, Sony, and Windows gaming computers. Apple has some games on its Mac App Store, but they are often released well after the games came out on other platforms. The company has in the past let fake knockoffs of popular games slip into the store. And while some argued last year that the Nintendo Wii-like controller potential of the new Apple TV remote might make the streaming device a “game console killer,” that doesn’t appear to have happened.
Apple could potentially release some sort of iPhone add-on, like Samsung has done with the $100 Gear VR device. But Samsung’s device relies on the processing power of the smartphone, and that generally restricts it to simple games, with simple interactions, that get tiresome quickly. It seems unlikely that Apple would want to release a less-than-perfect hardware experience that’s just a sidekick to the iPhone—especially considering that hasn’t worked out so well for the Apple Watch.
Offering an underpowered headset, or updating its computer line to support a headset as powerful as a Vive or Rift don’t seem like options for Apple. And it’s unlikely Apple will be able to produce a headset that’s significantly less fiddly to set up than its competitors’. Right now, VR is just as stodgy and user-unfriendly as those PCs in the old Mac ads.
Of course, that’s almost certainly what someone would’ve written about Apple’s chances in the phone market in 2006 when looking at the Palm Treo or the Motorola Razr. Apple has produced step-changes in technologies before, and could do it again. But given the current state of VR, that’s unlikely to be anytime soon.
Then again, it’s probably easier to build than a car.