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Don't hold your breath for a 5G Hail Mary from Apple

A new report from Bloomberg – authored by longtime Apple tracker Mark Gurman – indicates the iPhone maker could launch a virtual reality headset as soon as next year.

However, Gurman's reporting – which is noteworthy given his past accuracy on unannounced Apple products – could serve as a cautionary marker for operators pining for flashy new devices from Apple to juice their 5G sales.

According to Bloomberg, Apple's headset will support an all-encompassing, 3D environment for gaming, watching videos and communications. Thus, it will be more like a full virtual reality (VR) headset like Facebook's Oculus and Sony's PlayStation VR rather than artificial reality (AR) glasses like Google's ill-fated Glass, which sought to slap Internet information atop users' real-life field of view.

Perhaps more importantly, Apple's VR headset is reportedly being positioned as a "pricey, niche precursor" to AR glasses that Apple will use to help foster the market for AR and VR content. Bloomberg reported that Apple is still planning to develop cheaper, sleeker AR glasses at some point in the future, but has struggled to develop the battery and processing power necessary to make the glasses stylish and comfortable.

However, Apple's VR headset won't require a direct connection to a stationary computing device like a laptop or desktop computer – at least raising the prospect of some degree of mobility. Bloomberg's Gurman did not mention whether Apple's headset would work over Wi-Fi, but that's a likely assumption considering VR headset users probably won't venture beyond their living rooms.

Apple's work in the headset and glasses space is important to 5G operators because they are yearning for new consumer electronics devices that would benefit from their 5G connections. Many executives in the space – particularly T-Mobile's Neville Ray – have specifically pointed to AR glasses as one of the leading 5G innovations they're expecting in the near future.

Their desire for such devices boils down to the capabilities already provided by their 4G networks. Today's smartphones sport plenty of cutting-edge technologies, and the switch from speedy 4G connections to even speedier 5G connections doesn't represent the kind of dramatic upgrade that the world's first 4G smartphones offered almost a decade ago. Thus, 5G operators have been left to eke out 5G revenues from other sources like fixed wireless Internet services or private wireless networks.

Meanwhile, operators continue to hope that the "if you build it, they will come" mantra from the movie Field of Dreams will bear fruit. They are in the midst of fortifying and expanding the 5G networks they lit up during the past few years, paving the way for device makers like Apple to take advantage of the networks' new capabilities.

And 5G-powered AR glasses could certainly do that. After all, sleek, lightweight glasses that seamlessly present real-time information about one's surroundings – friends' latest social media posts or information on products within a store – could change users' digital lives in the way that smartphones did more than a decade ago. The low latency and high speeds promised by full-blown 5G networks operating in midband and highband spectrum would be necessary for those kinds of out-and-about AR experiences.

However, Apple's newest reported headset plans could indicate this kind of experience might be further in the future than many 5G operators had hoped. Gurman reported that Apple's AR glasses are now "several years away," though Apple had previously hoped to unveil such a product in 2023.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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