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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Apple's Vision Pro is incredible technology, but needs apps to catch consumers' eyes
Apple (AAPL) debuted its Vision Pro headset on Monday, during its Worldwide Developers Conference at its headquarters in Cupertino, CA. The first new major product announcement since the company revealed the Apple Watch in 2014, the Vision Pro is, as Apple tells it, a spatial computer. It’s not a VR headset, and it’s certainly not an attachment for the iPhone. It’s a standalone device meant to change the way you interact with apps, media, and games.
There’s a lot riding on the Vision Pro, which starts at $3,499 and will be available next year. Apple spent years developing the technology and registered 5,000 patents for the headset. It will help define CEO Tim Cook’s legacy, not to mention send Wall Street a message about the company’s future.
And after spending roughly 45 minutes with the Vision Pro, I’m more than a little impressed. A uniquely powerful piece of technology, the Vision Pro makes the case for a future where mixed reality headsets, those that can bounce between fully immersive virtual reality and augmented reality, are something every consumer will want to try.
That is, if the legion of Apple developers around the world can create the apps the platform needs to thrive beyond its compelling hardware.
Before you strap in…
The Vision Pro isn’t like headsets produced by the likes of Meta (META), HTC, or Sony (SONY). It’s incredibly sleek on the outside, packing an external display that shows the people around you where you’re looking via the system’s eye-tracking cameras.
The demo unit I used didn’t have the eye feature active, but Apple says that when it’s available, it’ll appear to other people as though your eyes are peering through the headset. Right down to what you’re focusing on and when you blink.
Before you strap on the Vision Pro, though, you’ll need to go through a setup process to figure out which light shield and headband will fit you best. If you wear glasses, specifically if you’re farsighted, Apple suggests opting for a pair of Zeiss Optical Inserts. They’re more or less prescription lenses that ensure you can see everything clearly. Yes, that means you’ll submit your vision prescription to get them.
It’s also worth noting that you can’t wear glasses with the headset, so unless you have contacts, you’ll need those lenses.
When you bring the Vision Pro home, you’ll start the general setup process, which includes taking a scan of your face and your ears using your iPhone. The scans are meant to ensure a comfortable fit and that Apple’s Spatial Audio 3D sound works well.
Popping on the Vision Pro is like any other headset, you slide the headband over your head, tighten the velcro strap on top of your head, and then twist a dial along the side to tighten the rear band.
Up front, surrounding the display, are a series of sensors and cameras that allow the Vision Pro to detect the outside world. Yes, you get a full, color view of your surroundings when wearing the headset. The effect is one that makes it appear as though the apps you’re using are floating in your living room.
The Vision Pro’s screen quality is, from my experience, second to none. It’s not exactly the same as looking at the 65-inch 4K in my living room, but it’s as close as a headset has gotten so far. There’s none of that blurry screen-door effect you see when pixels are too far apart on other headsets, and even small text is shockingly clear.
Apple says that’s because it’s using microLED technology that packs 23 million pixels into the Vision Pro’s two roughly stamp-size displays.
To set up the Vision Pro’s eye-tracking technology, you’ll need to follow a series of circles as they appear on screen, then shrink to tiny dots. You’ll repeat the process twice, once when the screen is bright and once when it’s dim. Apple says this is to make sure the eye-tracking cameras can follow your eyes whether you’re scrolling a bright web page or watching a movie with low lighting.
Unlike other headsets, the Vision Pro doesn’t require you to use a separate controller to navigate its interface. Instead, you look at on-screen items and select them by simply pinching your thumb and index finger together. For those who have difficulty pinching their fingers together, Apple says you can also navigate the interface using just your eyes.
So what’s it like?
For a product that doesn’t come out until next year, the Vision Pro is wildly well put together. Navigating the interface is smooth, and feels as intuitive as using your iPhone. Want to move an app? Grab the Window Bar at the bottom of the screen by looking at it and pinching your fingers, and you can place it anywhere in your room. I set up three apps around the demo space I was in, and each stayed anchored in their virtual space.
You don’t have to lift your hand to select something either. Because the Vision Pro has cameras looking down at your hands, you can rest them on your lap and pinch to choose something on screen. That removes the need for awkwardly reaching out to grab something like with other headsets.
I ran through a number of Apple demo experiences including watching sports, playing with an augmented reality dinosaur that jumped out at me, and using Apple’s Mindfulness app to meditate. And each app felt as impressive as the last. I sat slack jawed, looking at an immersive view of Mount Hood, and was even surprised by how clean the Home screen interface was.
One of the standout features was Spatial Photos and Videos. These are images and videos you capture using the Vision Pro’s front cameras, and they create a 3D-view of your subjects that makes it feel as if you're actually in the scene. A video of a child blowing out birthday candles came to life, while a shot of friends sitting around a fire felt as relaxing as a night in the backyard.
I could easily see this being something parents use to capture videos of their children, though, it might be awkward to do so while wearing the head gear.
The Vision Pro’s battery is also worth mentioning. Tethered to a power outlet, you can use the headset all day. On the attached battery pack, which sits in your pocket, you’ll get two hours of use. So don’t plan on getting a full day’s worth of productivity or entertainment out of it while on the go.
Apps are key
Apple blew me away with its technology, but if the Vision Pro is going to take off, it’ll need apps to do so. While my experience was enough to make me rethink the future of headsets, Apple will still need an army of developers around the world to create a reason for people to spend $3,499 outside of a high-end demonstration.
That’s part of the reason the Vision Pro isn’t hitting the market until early next year. With at least 6 months before the headset is available, Apple can continue to improve on its design and get developers on board to build the apps that will, potentially, help sell the device.
Either way, it’s the start of a new era for Apple.