Speaking with CNBC at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, HTC CEO and co-founder Cher Wang said the Cupertino tech giant was likely to launch a mixed reality, or XR, product “very soon” — potentially as soon as this year. XR refers to technologies that blend the physical and digital worlds.
“I think the earliest [release date] may be middle or later this year,” Wang said.
The company will likely prioritize such a device over augmented reality glasses, she added.
Apple did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.
It has reportedly indefinitely paused plans to launch AR glasses by 2025. The company has long been rumored to be working on its own virtual and augmented reality experiences. In January, Bloomberg reported that it is gearing up to release a mixed reality headset in the spring.
Apple often holds off on getting into a particular product trend or feature until long after other firms. For instance, the iPhone didn’t get a camera with two lenses until 2017, years after HTC introduced a dual camera with its HTC One M8 handset in 2014.
“Apple is always more cautious. I think the market is now big enough [that] they probably will enter,” Wang said.
But when Apple does eventually make its way into a new product category, it tends to “redefine the way that everyone thinks about an opportunity,” according to Leo Gebbie, principal analyst for connected devices at CCS Insight.
Neil Shah, research vice president of Counterpoint Research, told CNBC: “XR is the newest form of how we can interact differently with the world and can change the paradigm of personal computing.”
“Apple and the entire industry realizes the potential and hence want to enter and eventually lead this segment,” he added.
XR competition is fierce
Apple wouldn’t be the only company getting in on the XR game. In October, Meta launched its $1,500 Quest Pro device, which lets users interact with virtual objects that appear in a full-color view of the world around them.
Earlier this week, a Samsung executive said that the South Korean electronics giant is “working out” its mixed reality strategy. Microsoft has its own mixed reality headset, called HoloLens. On Monday, Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi took the wraps off of a prototype set of augmented reality glasses.
That will mean more competition for HTC. In the second quarter of 2022, the company shipped over 100,000 XR devices, according to data from Counterpoint Research, up by 158% from 40,000 shipments in the same period a year prior. But its market share remains relatively small.
If anything, Wang thinks that moves from Apple, Meta, Samsung and others in the space will boost the overall adoption of mixed reality devices, which she sees as a boon to HTC’s business.
“It’s really proven that our direction is correct,” she said. “Competition is always good.”
Once a major player in the smartphone market, HTC has staked its future on the merging of virtual and physical worlds. In January, the company launched its Vive XR Elite device, a lightweight headset focused on gaming, fitness and productivity, at a $1,099 price point.
HTC sold a chunk of its smartphone business to Google in 2018 for $1.1 billion.
Betting on the ‘metaverse’
The bet long term is that these devices will be how we interact with a mass-scale virtual world known as the “metaverse.” HTC has its own so-called metaverse, named HTC Viverse, and the company talked up its ambitions in this area at the show this week.
“The metaverse is kind of growing in a state where so many social media companies and walled garden companies are trying to build it out themselves,” Shen Ye, HTC’s global head of product, told CNBC. “Our goal is to make sure it’s as open and interconnected as possible.”
Buzz around the metaverse has died down lately, as the initial hype surrounding Meta’s involvement has been wearing off. Worldwide shipments of VR headsets as well as augmented reality devices sales sank over 12% last year, according to IDC data.
Companies have instead steered toward artificial intelligence, the new in-vogue tech topic that has been catapulted to the top of industry insiders’ favorite trends by ChatGPT, a popular AI chatbot. At MWC, South Korean telecoms firm SKTelecom had a big sign that read “AI METAVERSE.”
Donning one of HTC’s XR devices, users can immerse themselves in virtual spaces or interact with 3D objects in the physical space surrounding them.
In one experience shown off at MWC, people were invited to try out their boxing skills. A grid of nine black circles appears, and you were scored on how quickly you could punch them as they lit up red one after the other in a random order.
Beyond the consumer space, HTC sees its technology offering applications in more commercial and industrial settings. The company is working with the United States Air Force and police departments to carry out virtual training experiences, Wang said.