In the “one more thing” section of Apple’s WWDC 2023 event on Monday, Apple unveiled the augmented reality (AR) Vision Pro headset, which comes with a whopping $3,499 price tag and will be available early next year. But for wireless geeks, it’s noteworthy that Apple didn’t even mention 5G and all the low latency perks that come with it.

Analysts said they’re not surprised there’s no 5G in the device and they think it will come eventually.

“The Vision Pro appears mostly aimed at use in fixed locations, such as at home or at work. As a result, it seems likely that Wi-Fi connectivity will be ample for the headset,” said CCS Insight principal analyst Leo Gebbie.

“5G is a far more critical part of the AR story when it comes to mobile use cases, where people will need high throughput and low latency connectivity to access services and content on the move,” Gebbie said. However, the device “seems like a first step on a journey for Apple and it would make sense for 5G to be added to future spatial computing products which are more aimed at mobile use.”

For a variety of reasons, it doesn’t make sense to include 5G at this stage, according to Chetan Sharma, founder and CEO of Chetan Sharma Consulting. Adding to the already hefty cost is just one of them. 

From a design point of view, a 5G radio will consume more power and add to the challenges around the battery, which currently is attached by a cord. The user experience also doesn’t really call for 5G yet; most indoor experiences can be done via Wi-Fi, he said.  

“I think they just wanted to simplify the experience,” instead of trying to wrestle cellular into the design, which would add even more costs. The number of units that are expected to sell aren’t enough for operators to get excited about, either, he said. “For all those reasons, it didn’t make sense for 5G to be part of this picture.”

FWA, private 5G & AR/VR

But some see it as a missed opportunity for Apple and the mobile operator community. After fixed wireless access (FWA) and private networks, AR has been the use case most inextricably linked with 5G, noted analyst Jason Leigh, who covers 5G and mobility research at IDC.

“It absolutely was a missed opportunity to advance the conversation, especially now that 5G networks are approaching ubiquity in various forms,” he said.

The pairing of 5G and AR isn’t new. Microsoft’s Hololens 2, released in 2019, supports 5G, but only through Wi-Fi tethering to a cellular hotspot or tethering directly to the hotspot via USB, he said. “All other things being equal, it sounds like the Vision Pro is headed down the same path,” Leigh told Fierce.

Interestingly, similar to artificial intelligence (AI), Apple didn’t talk about the connectivity during its presentations about the Vision Pro.

“They didn’t mention any connectivity with the Vision Pro that I heard, Wi-Fi or otherwise,” Leigh said. “That piece of the puzzle may still be determined,” since the device won’t be available until 2024. “It very well could be they decided for whatever reason not to talk about the connectivity piece.”

There’s precedent for Apple to do exclusive deals with wireless operators. The first iPhone only worked on AT&T’s network. In 2020, Apple invited Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg to join Tim Cook on stage for the unveiling of the iPhone 12 with millimeter wave (mmWave) support.  

These days, given T-Mobile’s declaring itself as the leader in 5G, it might be in line for the next exclusive. Just this week, T-Mobile touted how its 5G network is making it possible to revolutionize the drone inspection industry. Leigh speculated that it could be an interesting pairing to combine drones with a 5G headset where a person could see what the drone sees.

T-Mobile wasn’t immediately available to comment on its intentions, future or nearer term, with the Vision Pro.

That 5G Pokémon Go

But Leigh said 5G should actually help with the battery life issue by moving compute off the device and onto the edge. “Two-hour battery life is going to be amenable to some industrial maintenance use cases, but it is hard to see consumers jumping at that. Leveraging the edge cloud for hosting software and compute would also theoretically lighten the AR headset, improving comfort and giving more options for fashion,” he said.

There’s a dearth of 5G-specific applications, so unveiling the device at Apple’s developer conference makes sense to generate interest. Particularly on the consumer side, the industry is “really desperate for that viral, 5G-only version of Pokémon Go that you can only get in a 5G setting, to really show what all this investment is about,” he said.

“I think they’re going to get there with AR. The question is when,” he said. “It’s probably a mix of both the hardware [device] issue and a network issue.” The sooner they can develop a lightweight version of an AR headset and not “look weird,” that’s going to drive adoption, he said.

The fun thing about 5G is there’s a lot of speculation about what it can do, he said. “The challenge I think is when it comes to brass tacks, getting all the pieces to work together,” he said. “I’m sure Apple is going to launch a great product. The question then becomes: What do you do with it? That’s really the story of 5G… how is it going to be used?”

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