No matter what anyone thinks of Apple, there’s no point denying that this is a company in the habit of redefining whole categories of tech products by introducing a single one of its own. It happened with the portable music player (the iPod), it happened with the smartphone (the iPhone), it happened with the tablet (the iPad) and it looks like it may be happening again in early 2024, when Apple’s first mixed reality headset, the Vision Pro, will arrive. After a number of companies have experimented for a number of years with a number of different augmented reality and virtual reality products, with varying degrees of success, it may once again be Apple the one turning the world’s attention to these devices at long last.
The only problem: starting at $3499, not a lot of consumers will get to experience it at first.
Be that as it may, the Vision Pro makes a compelling case for a cutting-edge AR/VR product, even for one clearly designed to keep its owner locked in the Apple ecosystem. Let’s break it all down.
Advanced hardware designed to drive advanced interaction
In typical Apple fashion, this is not described as an ordinary AR/VR device. That would be too pedestrian for Tim Cook’s team, which calls the Vision Pro “a spatial computer” in the sense that its apps extend beyond a mere computer or mobile screen, to the physical space surrounding its user. It’s catchy and… not that far from the truth, actually: this product may be based around a computer chip – the M2 used in Macs, although Apple did not specify which model – and a specialized R1 chip – which takes care of all the AR/VR stuff – but Apple wants people to imagine themselves using it in a big room with the surrounding space working as a giant, well, virtual desktop of sorts.
If this sounds more like AR than VR, it’s because that’s exactly how Apple thinks of the Vision Pro: a computer that’s “overlaying” apps, content and services over the physical environment around the user, with the ability to go fully virtual seamlessly. The company has gone to great lengths to ensure that consumers using its headset are not completely disconnected from the outside world (unless they wish to) and even that people watching them use it don’t feel that said consumers are unreachable (that see-through digital image displayed on the headset can give anyone strong Black Mirror vibes but it’s a smart). The transition from augmented reality to virtual reality and back is definitely handled in a much more natural, elegant way that other such products ever attempted to do in the past.
One has to give it to Apple regarding the main concept of Vision Pro for three different reasons. One, they really honed in on the standing issues of current AR/VR headsets. Two, they built interesting new tech to solve many or even most of those issues. Three, they kept all of that in mind when designing the user interface of VisionOS, the operating system this device depends on. All three reasons combined already make the Vision Pro seem like a superior product because, well, it most probably is. The total absence of controllers and the exclusive use of hand gestures, eye tracking or voice for navigation and general control may sound overambitious, but it seems to be working as intended (if the impressions of a few people who went hands-on with a prototype Vision Pro are any indication). The use of an external power pack means that the device is not heavy and uncomfortable to use (battery life will suffer as a consequence), while people wearing prescription glasses will be able to get special lenses working perfectly with the Vision Pro (at extra cost… obviously).
This being an Apple product – especially one costing considerably more than the most expensive such headset in the market right now – means that some things are simply expected of it. The company delivered on those: the Vision Pro is beautifully designed – for a computer worn on one’s face, that is – carefully constructed and luxuriously built. It packs some serious audiovisual tech that matches its impressive computational power, ranging from the high resolution MicroOLED screens and the truly positional sound system to the impressive array of cameras, sensors and microphones delivering a realistic, accurate version of “the outside world” to the consumer wearing the Vision Pro. It really is a product that has gone through a lot of testing and changes, several revisions and fine-tuning – and it shows.
The “killer-app”: a whole lot of ordinary, familiar ones
In all honesty, though, almost every use case Apple demonstrated for the Vision Pro during its WWDC event has already been offered by other such products in one form or another. One can already watch movies and TV shows using a PlayStation VR (even the original one from 2016), run windowed programs and productivity apps using a Valve Index, transform physical objects into polygonal ones with a Microsoft Hololens, do video conferencing in virtual space using a Meta Quest… the list goes on. There were no “wow” moments, in the sense of not-seen-before apps doing not-seen-before things. The sheer number and range of different use cases shown may be impressive, but not a single one stood out as unique, out-of-the-box or particularly imaginative.
Apple already knows this. The company also knows that – at least to begin with – it’s the familiarity of the apps and services belonging to its current ecosystem that will have to make up for the absence of that “wow factor”: a lot of what was shown is what people already know and use, but in augmented reality or virtual reality environments. If the hand gestures work as precisely and seamlessly as implied in Apple’s promotional video, then there will almost be no learning curve for owners of the company’s other products. This is a major selling point, hence the emphasis put on the user interface of VisionOS and popular apps such as Safari or Photos or Facetime.
Having said that, there were a few intriguing examples of how augmented reality and virtual reality can indeed offer new experiences: during the announcement of Apple’s collaboration with Disney, for instance, the latter’s CEO showed footage of an imaginary version of The Mandalorian where consumers could “step into the shoes” of the protagonist in VR while watching the show. It’s not clear how something like this can happen so naturally – not given the current tech limitations anyway – but if behemoths such as Disney truly put their weight behind an effort to combine different kinds of content into new forms of entertainment, then we may all be in for some exciting surprises down the line.
An Apple product through and through, for better or worse
Yours truly had recently published a story maintaining that, if Apple really, really wanted to hit the ground running with its upcoming headset – and give the AR/VR category a push as a whole – it should release it at the lowest price possible, even if it meant making the exception of losing money in the process. It obviously comes as no surprise that the company chose to enter the mixed reality market on its own terms instead, with an ultra-expensive product that will please its investors and line its pockets. It’s still disappointing, though, because if there’s one company that can afford to invest considerable resources in order to speed things along, it’s Apple.
There are additional factors to consider in all of this, of course, such as chip availability and software readiness, but “$3499”, “early 2024” and “US only” can only mean that the Vision Pro’s impact in the AR/VR space will not be felt until late 2024 at the earliest. What we’ll be getting is a protracted alpha testing period of 8 to 10 months before the product is even available, a commercial release in stages – and low availability – and then a second, beta testing period during which developers will be exploring what’s possible with the Vision Pro practically “in the open”. By the time 2025 comes around and the more affordable model of this product arrives at stores, it will be more than two years since Apple announced its intention to enter the mixed reality market. This is far from ideal and definitely not the kind of approach one would expect from a company aspiring to lead important tech categories.
Still, there’s no denying that the announcement of the Vision Pro can already be considered a milestone for AR and VR: Apple entering this space is a statement about the prospects and future potential of these products. This is mixed reality turning a corner. What this will actually come to mean in 2024 and beyond for consumers is anybody’s guess. But Apple’s brand power and marketing experience are so formidable, that the Vision Pro may very well prove capable of doing for AR/VR what the iPhone did for mobile. If that comes to pass, it will be three insufferably long years worth going through.