Cher Wang, chairman, co-founder and CEO of HTC, speaks at a keynote on the second day of Mobile World Congress 2023.

Joan Cross | Nurphoto | Nurphoto via Getty Images

BARCELONA — The head of the consumer electronics company HTC thinking Apple is about to launch her own mixed reality headset, but she’s not worried about the competition.

Speaking to CNBC at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, ​​HTC CEO and co-founder Cher Wang said the Cupertino tech giant is likely to launch a mixed reality, or XR, product “very soon” — potentially as soon as this year. XR refers to technologies that blend the physical and digital worlds.

“I think the earliest (release date) could be the middle or later this year,” Wang said.

The company is likely to prioritize such a device over augmented reality glasses, she added.

Apple did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

It has reportedly put plans to launch AR glasses on hold indefinitely to 2025. The company has long been rumored to be working on its own virtual and augmented reality experiences. In January, Bloomberg reported that it is is preparing to release a mixed reality headset in the spring.

Apple often waits to get into a particular product trend or feature until well after other companies. For example, the iPhone didn’t get a dual-lens camera until 2017, years after HTC introduced a dual camera with its HTC One M8 phone in 2014.

“Apple is always more cautious. I think the market is now big enough (that) they will probably enter,” Wang said.

But when Apple eventually moves into a new product category, it tends to “redefine how everyone thinks about an opportunity,” according to Leo Gebbie, principal analyst for connected devices at CCS Insight.

Neil Shah, director of research at Counterpoint Research, told CNBC: “XR is the latest form of how we can interact differently with the world and can change the paradigm of personal computing.”

“Apple and the entire industry recognize the potential and therefore want to step in and eventually lead this segment,” he added.

The XR competition is fierce

Mobile phone inventor: Modern phones not optimal for talking

It will mean more competition for HTC. In the second quarter of 2022, the company shipped over 100,000 XR units, according to data from Counterpoint Research, a 158% increase from 40,000 shipments in the same period a year earlier. But its market share is still relatively small.

If anything, Wang believes that moves from Apple, Meta, Samsung and others in the space will increase the overall adoption of mixed reality devices, which she sees as a boon for HTC’s business.

“It’s really proven that our direction is correct,” she said. “Competition is always good.”

Once a major player in the smartphone market, HTC has staked its future on merging virtual and physical worlds. In January, the company launched its Vive XR Elite device, a lightweight headset focused on gaming, fitness and productivity, priced at $1,099.

HTC sold part of its smartphone business to Google in 2018 for $1.1 billion.

Betting on the “metaverse”

The long-term bet is that these devices will be how we interact with a large-scale virtual world known as the “metaverse.” HTC has its own so-called metaverse, called the HTC Viverse, and the company talked about its ambitions in this area at the show this week.

“The metaverse is kind of growing in a state where so many social media companies and walled garden companies are trying to build it out themselves,” Shen Ye, HTC’s global product manager, told CNBC. “Our goal is to make sure it’s as open and connected as possible.”

Buzz around the metaverse has died down lately, as the initial hype around Meta’s involvement has died down. Worldwide shipments of VR headsets as well as augmented reality devices fell over 12% last year, according to IDC data.

Companies have instead steered toward artificial intelligence, the hot new tech topic that has been catapulted to the top of industry insiders’ favorite trends by ChatGPT, a popular AI chatbot. At MWC, South Korean telecom company SKTelecom had a big sign that said “AI METAVERSE.”

By donning one of HTC’s XR devices, users can immerse themselves in virtual spaces or interact with 3D objects in the physical space that surrounds them.

In an experience showcased at MWC, people were invited to try out their boxing skills. A grid of nine black circles appeared, and you were scored on how quickly you could hit them as they glow red one after the other in a random order.

Beyond the consumer space, HTC sees its technology offering applications in more commercial and industrial environments. The company is working with the U.S. Air Force and police to conduct virtual training experiences, Wang said.

LOOK AT: ChatGPT is a “milestone” for Qualcomm as it showcases AI smartphone capabilities, CEO says

ChatGPT is one