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What do Apple’s AR Glasses Mean for the Fashion World?

Photo: Apple

On Monday, Apple announced its long-anticipated mixed reality glasses. After years of fits and starts, could this be the tech’s big breakthrough?

The black and grey headset, called Apple Vision Pro and selling for $3,499, enables the wearer to experience both augmented reality and virtual reality content. Wearers control the device with eye and hand movements, their voice and a small dial on the device that is similar to that found on the Apple Watch – no remote required.

Apple introduced the device during its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, designed to share hardware and software updates with global developers. During the demonstration, Apple showed early examples of how wearers might use the technology in everyday life: to experience immersive movies or video games, to capture video content from the outside world or conduct meetings and calls with others, and to see three-dimensional digital content overlaid on the outside world.

These capabilities carry various implications for other industries. Video game and film developers already have a natural use-case, while productivity and educational tools were early examples shared by Apple. Many existing iPhone or iPad apps are already compatible, meaning that developers might have a headstart on how to expand using the tech.

The front of the Apple Vision Pro is a single pane of glass that can be transparent or opaque, depending on the wearer’s intended experience. Photo: Apple

During the presentation, Apple did not specifically mention any tracking capabilities that achieve true mixed reality, such as the ability to detect people and dress them in digital clothing, or overlay digital content into existing buildings, as Snapchat’s smartphone app is able to do. That means for fashion, early uses might be the ability to broadcast fashion shows or other storytelling moments in a more compelling environment, or the ability for shoppers to twist and turn life-sized 3D products within their own environment. In the future, one might imagine shopping experiences that include a personal shopper and a product assortment displayed throughout a consumer’s field of vision, as opposed to on a rectangular screen.

The Apple Vision Pro, which will be available early next year, revives the smart glasses category with fanfare. Both fashion and tech companies have been eyeing smart glasses (which don’t have augmented reality capabilities), AR glasses and VR headsets for years. Meta, Amazon, Snapchat, Microsoft and others such as Magic Leap have all released their own versions of the technology, with varying degrees of success – but none have truly broken through to the mainstream.

More than 10 years ago, Diane von Furstenberg’s runway show famously featured Google Glass, which displayed digital notifications on top of the wearer’s vision. The consumer-facing version of Google Glass — which some considered to be too soon — was ultimately discontinued in 2015. More recently, Balmain partnered with Meta on a small collection of branded Oculus VR headsets in 2018, Gucci collaborated with Snapchat on a version of its smart glasses in 2019 and Ray-Ban partnered with Meta on its first smart glasses, introduced in September 2021.

The modular headset uses an external battery pack that lasts for two hours. It can also be personalised with optical inserts for vision correction. Photo: Apple

But these projects, and others, have failed to enjoy the type of momentum that was predicted. In the past six months, Meta has laid off thousands of employees, including some of those working at its Reality Labs, which is focused on its extended reality projects. Early entrants including Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap have both faced massive disappointments and setbacks. By waiting to be later in the pack, Apple had the advantage of more advanced technology and perhaps learning from others’ earlier mistakes, but it also faces more pressure to deliver a consumer-ready device.

Experts in fashion and technology consider Apple’s announcement a major breakthrough toward mainstream adoption of extended reality, which is considered a core element of the metaverse, especially given the type of fandom and reach that Apple’s updates tend to inspire. It comes at a time when enthusiasm for the metaverse and its associated technologies (virtual worlds, digital goods, NFTs) has started to wane.

“A design-centred company building a device and operating system from the ground up is great news for the XR space,” says Amy LaMeyer, managing partner at the WXR Fund, a venture fund backing start-ups using AR, VR and artificial intelligence. “They’ve committed to moving to a spatial computing world [that is] heads up and hands-free,” which has become a motto of those building out the next stage of computing.

Apple’s hope is that the Vision Pro will introduce the mainstream public to spatial computing, a wide range of technologies that refer to when machines interact with physical-world environments and objects. The device is the first product from the iPhone maker that people look through, rather than at, said Apple CEO Tim Cook. He added that this was the beginning of a journey that ultimately stands to “change the way we communicate, collaborate, work and enjoy entertainment”.

Any time Apple introduces a new hardware or software product, fashion tends to take notice, both because of the potential for new capabilities (such as new app features and better cameras) and for the device itself to become a fashion accessory, similar to the Apple Watch that expanded into partnerships with Nike and Hermès. Apple’s Vision Pro glasses present a similar circumstance, in which brands now must more closely consider how their apps and experiences might take advantage of this new format (whose operating system is called visionOS), and whether they might develop fashionable accessories or partnerships that apply the luxury magic to this new wearable.

“This is a luxury accessory priced for both the enterprise and the luxury consumer. This is the moment for developers at maisons to start developing for this device and for the visionOS,” says

Cathy Hackl, chief futurist and chief metaverse officer at consultancy Journey, who previously worked as an enterprise strategist at mixed reality headset maker Magic Leap, including working with fashion clients on spatial computing. She says that while the Apple presentation initially focused on entertainment and communication, it will begin a transition for fashion and luxury, both from a content and design perspective. “The wearable device of the future will have to be a technological marvel firmly rooted in style. Users will be making a fashion choice to use the device or not and what it signals to others.”

Will people actually want to wear it? The device itself is “really beautiful”, says Matthew Drinkwater, who as head of the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency has been testing the fashion uses of mixed reality glasses for years. He notes that the examples of using 3D objects and technology were really limited in the initial presentation, and, “this is something that will be critical for it to gain mass traction”.

The examples given during the presentation include collaborating with remote teams on 3D digital product prototypes and watching three-dimensional movies. A three-dimensional, larger-than-life beating heart was shown as a way to aid medical education, while the screen on one wearer’s computer screen was animated and expanded into their wider worldview in front of them. During the presentation, Apple announced partnerships with Disney and game engine Unity. Many existing iPad and iPhone apps would be compatible, and that the device used Apple’s developer tools ARKit (to build AR experiences) and RealityKit (to build experiences that blend virtual content with the physical world).

“Disney’s video gave an insight into how intellectual property can become multi-layered and a much bigger part of our everyday lives,” Drinkwater says. “The level of immersion looks very  impressive and you could begin to imagine a catwalk being brought to life in front of you in extraordinary detail, or retail experiences that feel far more personal.” The fact that Unity apps run natively on VisionOS is “a really big deal,” Drinkwater adds, because it means the number of people already building in Unity will immediately be able to bring their projects to the device.

Often, new devices face a chicken-or-egg conundrum: They need great content to attract new users, but developers and brands aren’t incentivised to invest in device-specific content if there aren’t sufficient users to justify the expense. To that end, the hefty price tag suggests that the average consumer is unlikely to line up at the Apple store to be one of the first to kick the tires. Instead, early adopters, XR fans, some enterprises and gamers will likely be the first to buy it, LaMeyer says. While she is disappointed that it won’t be available until next year, she says it makes sense that Apple would want to build up an interesting set of content first.

“For mass adoption, they’ll need to bring the price down. They will also need to focus on continuing to make it easy to use, comfortable and have interesting content.” Over to you, fashion developers.

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