Q&A: What VRdirect's Rolf Illenberger expects from Apple Reality

Ignore the negativity that breaks out before every major Apple product introduction. This is what VR professionals think is coming.

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In a pattern we’ve seen in the prelude to every significant Apple product introduction, we’re reading the usual negative reporting. To understand the market Cupertino is getting into a little better, I spoke with Rolf Illenberger, managing director of VRdirect.

Illenberger's company builds VR software for enterprise clients such as Siemens, Porsche, and Nestle. He believes Apple’s decision to enter the market now (presumably at next month's Worldwide Developer Conference) reflects a desire to stake a claim in the enterprise VR space, as it’s too early yet to make a consumer play. Beyond the edge, most consumers still need to be convinced they need this stuff.

He argues that will change over time as developers identify cool new implementations to meet emerging consumer needs. But for now, Apple's VR business is all about the enterprise.

Here's what we discussed in a Q&A:

Does mixed reality need killer apps, or is the tech at the stage where people still need to understand the potential? "It’s a little bit of both. Apple’s credibility is important here given the history with the Watch and the iPhone. I think many of us believe the reason they’ve targeted developers with a potential launch is that can serve as the key to unlocking the potential with a much wider audience."

If the tech remains at a pioneer stage, where do you see it most making a positive difference today? "It sounds far-fetched, but the more dependent and adaptable we become with VR, I think the most positive impact will be on tackling something as complex as climate change. 

"In a responsible world, sustainable corporate travel and immersive meetings with VR not only protect the environment through the reduction of air travel — but expansive event halls and exhibition spaces no longer need to be heated, cooled, or lit for events.

"For example, Javits Center in Manhattan has more than 800,000 square feet of space that when filled, are a drain on both emissions and energy. The same [is true] for massive office spaces, including that of Apple and Meta. Much of the battle with trying to bring remote employees into the office post-pandemic goes against their corporate sustainability initiatives." 

When the PC first appeared, some might say it was presented as a business-class device that over time became part of the consumer experience. To what extent are we at a similar point in evolution today regarding AR? 

"Very much in the same place. Enterprise will adopt VR as a standard technology in the next 12 to 24 months. That’s also why Apple wants to make sure they’re active and involved, as B2B and enterprise are happening right now. Most people will have their first encounter with VR at the workplace, much like those of us born in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s had their first experience with computers in an office or educational setting.

"Then they start considering buying the technology for personal use."

Why do you believe B2B applications will be the driving force for VR?  "We are seeing B2B companies who missed out on the social media revolution and their ability to monetize before third-party platforms like Facebook as early-adopters in the space. Many of these companies learned to successfully adapt to a virtual office during the COVID pandemic, so whereas in 2019, conversations with the B2B community about a metaverse would have been far-fetched, they’ve been operating virtually — in many capacities, for bits and pieces, over the last three years. Also, this is not a hypothesis anymore,  it is happing today across all industries and companies." 

What will be the core use cases for VR in business in the near term?  "Human resources. Recruiting. Training of new employees. Sales and marketing also come into play here, where a B2B client can deliver an experience through Virtual Reality to clients across the world that may not have been available or accessible without the technology. The core strength of VR is its ability to create and leverage an immersive experience."

And in the long term?

"The potential is limitless. If you look at Apple in 2007 with the iPhone, they weren’t reinventing the phone as much as they were rethinking the computer and putting it in your pocket. I believe devices like the one Apple is about to introduce will rethink how we approach our phones in just a few years’ time --- perhaps allowing us to disconnect from them a bit. 

"I firmly believe the metaverse is the next evolution of the internet and will replace the smartphone era, so it’s nothing more or less than the technology future we will all live in. "

Some argue that Apple is already entering a busy market. Is this really true? "Some would argue Apple was entering a busy and crowded phone, watch and headphone market, too. Then they made products that were widely viewed as exceptionally better than what was out there already.

"I think this is behind much of the excitement from the business and consumer community. While it’s true that there are already very powerful global tech giants in the arena, the market is still in its infancy. If Apple wants to stay relevant in the next technology era, it has no option to not enter this market."

Do you think current analysis accurately describes the profound — or non-profound — impact of these technologies?  "No, much of the current analysis focuses way too much on the current market success of devices rather than the long-term evolution the technology will bring.

"The current devices and offerings in the space are not yet compelling to (B2C) users — and everyone in the industry knows this. Hence, players like Apple and Meta first need to nurture ecosystems, which is what they will do when they launch in June.

"Shifting from the smartphone/internet to the Metaverse era will not happen overnight, but only the ones who truly understand the vision seem to accurately describe the state of the market right now." 

What hasn’t happened yet in this space that will? "The market hasn’t seen any consolidation yet. There is no way, that five to 10+ key players will be offering competing ecosystems for this technology like what we see today.

"With Apple, Meta, Bytedance/Pico, Lenovo, and HTC (eventually also Samsung/Google) only the biggest tech giants of our time are competing for market share and gatekeeper roles. We will experience a phase of fierce competition and consolidation in the next 24 months." 

Is this Apple’s space to win, or one in which it will lose? "Apple is clearly in a great position to become a dominant player in this market as:

  • They can leverage their existing and strong Apple ecosystem to push this new technology.  
  • They are a trusted technology partner of almost any enterprise out there (in contrast for instance to Meta and Bytedance/Pico).
  • This will allow them to gain market share relatively quickly." 

Will Apple’s status make it the company that unleashes the potential of this tech? "That’s what many people are hoping for. The buzz and hype around VR will certainly increase to new heights when Apple releases its tech. Apple is the one company that can take a technology from the tech nerds to the cool kids — see how they made AirPods and that awkward initial design cool."

Where do you think this tech will be in five years’ time. How will we use it in our daily lives? 

 "To be clear: today, the Metaverse is still a vision. VR is a key building block and the most advanced future Metaverse technology today.

"In five years, we will be able to experience the Metaverse with its key characteristics: immersiveness (i.e., making using technology more natural and intuitive) and interoperability (i.e., making technology easier to use for humans).

"It will be a gradual process, but much faster than humans are able to anticipate today." 

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