What if Apple’s VR dream is more virtual than real?

The iPhone 8 could be Apple’s last big chance to get into the VR game

The next time you walk into an Apple retail store, try finding a virtual reality (VR) headset. You can’t buy one. You’ll find plenty of gleaming smartphones, tablets, laptops and headphones. Heck, you’ll even find drones. And it’s the same story with the online Apple Store — there’s not a single VR headset available for sale. (The one model that previously had been available — a cheap $29.95 View-Master VR headset that you can also buy at Walmart and Kmart — was quietly removed at the beginning of February)

That’s more than strange, given how much effort other tech giants — including Apple rival Samsung — have spent on marketing VR to consumers.

Consider that Samsung has already sold 5 million units of its Samsung Gear VR headset. No doubt you were subjected to ad after ad for the Samsung Gear VR during the holiday shopping season and have seen countless “freak out” videos of people using VR for the first time. Well, Samsung literally has a nearly two-year head start on Apple when it comes to VR because the Gear VR launched for the 2015 holiday season.

Since then, we’ve seen the launch of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. And don’t forget about Google — the Google Cardboard has become the de facto official standard for anyone who doesn’t want to pony up hundreds of bucks to check out VR. (You can buy a Cardboard for $15 these days and some VR content sites will give them away for free)

The rumblings out of Cupertino, though, is that everything is going to change in 2017. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently called augmented reality (but not virtual reality) just about the biggest thing since the smartphone. And 2017 is supposed to be the big 10th anniversary of the iPhone and the launch of the amazing iPhone 8. There are two basic directions Apple could go with this — it could build any AR and VR capabilities directly into the new iPhone 8. Or it could build a new headset along the lines of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

The latest rumor, courtesy of tech evangelist Robert Scoble, is that Apple is partnering with Germany’s Carl Zeiss on a set of lightweight VR glasses. But the evidence for that is pretty sparse — it’s basically based on Scoble’s observations from the Vegas CES Show, where Carl Zeiss had a booth at the show in the augmented reality section but wasn’t actually presenting anything. That’s led some to conjecture that Carl Zeiss was “muzzled” and couldn’t mention anything about its Apple partnership.

But even if it were true, so what? Carl Zeiss makes a VR headset already, the Carl Zeiss VR One Plus, and it’s basically a superior version of the Google Cardboard and a slightly less spectacular version of the Samsung Gear VR. It retails for $100, but has picked up mostly mixed reviews on Amazon.com (a rating of 3.1/5.0). You can find better, cheaper VR headsets made in China. (Don’t tell Donald Trump this.)

That’s really a shame, because the experience of using VR with the iPhone is currently a lousy one. It’s still primarily an app-driven experience, where you download a VR app from a third party like the New York Times and watch videos from within the app. If you have a Google Cardboard, you can slip your iPhone inside and have more of a VR experience. But most apps crash or freeze after a few seconds and generally offer a middling (and blurry!) experience at best (especially if you are using Wi-Fi to stream a VR experience).

And forget about using VR with a souped up Mac. You basically need to rely on a hack from a Swedish computer programmer to get VR to work on a Mac. High-end VR headsets like the Oculus Rift are not designed to work on the Mac.

Which brings us back to the unsettling truth — either Apple really doesn’t have anything ready to go in 2017 and keeps feeding us all these VR rumors to keep us from getting locked into the Google, Samsung or Facebook/Oculus ecosystems, or it’s preparing a mind-blowing version of VR that we can’t even imagine.

If you believe tech analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, one of the top Apple analysts around, Apple is planning to introduce a version of either AR or VR that’s “3–5 years ahead of the competition.” And certainly, Apple has scooped up a bunch of computer vision, AR and machine learning startups that could form the basis of some world-changing applications. Some have conjectured that Apple could be preparing a heads-up display with Siri integration. It could be fantastic, whatever Apple is planning for 2017 or (more likely) 2018.

But there could be another scenario that most people won’t even mention — Apple has become the new Microsoft. In other words, Apple has become a company so locked into its version of reality (the profitable Apple ecosystem based around the iPhone) that it has been largely blindsided by virtual reality and other technological developments. In the process, Apple risks becoming irrelevant. When it comes to hot fields like AI and VR, Apple is really just an afterthought these days.

How is it possible that Samsung, Google and Facebook all have brought VR products to market and Apple has not? (Even Microsoft has some cool VR technology known as the HoloLens in the works) If Apple disappoints again in 2017 and doesn’t manage to introduce a compelling VR experience, it’s going to make it awfully easy for some VR enthusiasts to give up on the iPhone and (heresy!) switch to Samsung or Google, where developers are actually creating new VR experiences. OK, if you have to ditch the iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel phone, so be it. If that’s the case, it will be a shame. Apple had almost three years to come up with a high-quality VR product, but instead, opted to sell cheap $29.95 View-Masters.