There has been much talk about Apple’s ‘upcoming’ XR headset, now dubbed the Vision Pro, for the last few years, and today we got to see it come to fruition. Many will see this day as the third wave of the XR market and how the industry transitioned from VR to AR, even though Apple’s headset is predominantly a VR headset with an AR dial with many cameras to enable a mixed reality experience. However, Apple wants to stay away from the VR and Metaverse conversation and wants to own the arguably much more extensive but also more distant AR market. Apple is approaching this market from a top-down perspective with Vision Pro. Suppose you think about how it will introduce most people to the technology. In that case, you want people’s first experience to be the pinnacle of what’s possible for the technology, even if they can’t afford it yet. With the $3,500 price tag, Apple is yet again trying to make this an aspirational product, even if most people rightfully balk at the price.
The next platform
Apple understands the challenges of getting users to transition to a new computing platform; the company did it with the iPhone, the iPad, Watch, and Apple Silicon on Macs. There will always be challenges with new platforms, and Apple has been preparing for this day for many years. The Vision Pro is the next generation of development for Apple’s AR vision since it is a VR headset with many cameras for high-quality passthrough AR. This will also overcome many AR headsets’ challenges today, including image quality, field of view, and battery life. However, there are still lots of user interface challenges and the need to port apps from 2D screens into 3D environments, which will involve bringing in the lowest-hanging fruit.
Low hanging fruit
If you watched Apple’s Vision Pro launch at the WWDC23 conference, you would notice that most applications were apps we’ve seen from other companies and didn’t seem ground-breaking. I believe this is because Apple wants to go after the lowest-hanging fruit first, like video conferencing, productivity, and entertainment. Beyond that, Apple will make the headset available to developers to develop spatial apps that can take advantage of its full capabilities, especially since it has so many bells and whistles. The Apple Vision Pro has almost every imaginable feature that you could ask for on an XR headset and throws them all into one, which screams that this is a developer device but also one for its enthusiasts and prosumers who want everything and the kitchen sink, even if it means waiting for years to realize its potential fully. Apple has also reintroduced the world to 3D movies, which I find ironic considering how many people have claimed that VR headsets would become the next 3DTV, which they didn’t realize would end up being faithful to a certain degree, but not in the way they intended.
I could not imagine that there could be a world where a cabled headset is considered the most premium headset on the market, but Apple has accomplished that. Aside from the cabled attached battery, the Vision Pro features seem like a long list of premium features. This includes having two micro-OLED displays with more than 4K resolution per eye. Apple quoted a combined resolution of 23 megapixels with both displays and when you consider that 8K is 33 megapixels and 4K is 10 megapixels, this is somewhere in between that, more like 6K. It also features an M2 processor paired with a new R1 co-processor, which helps drive many vision systems like the 12 cameras that enable mixed reality, hand-tracking, and eye-tracking interfaces. All of this is cooled by a “nearly silent” cooling system, which implies that Apple is actively cooling the headset, which makes sense when you consider it needs to cool two chips and three displays, all being on simultaneously.
The outward-facing curved OLED lenticular display will not only be impressive for viewers but is also costly tech and computationally expensive. Seeing a user’s eyes was an essential factor for Apple’s designers, so its engineers created EyeSight; this is how the company achieved that capability. Additionally, Apple says that if a user is fully immersed in a VR mode using the digital crown, their eyes won’t be visible. There are also features like the 3D camera that allow you to capture 3D photos and videos from the headset, which the company calls Spatial Photos and Spatial Video. In addition, the company is delivering on the rumor of ultra-high-quality avatars it is calling a Digital Persona, which you create by scanning yourself with the headset’s camera system.
Something missing from Apple’s presentation of the Vision Pro was the field of view that users could expect and what kind of storage and memory it would be running, which seems like an odd detail to leave out. The battery pack with the attached wire also goes against everything that everyone in the XR market has known, and most enterprises and prosumers have pushed against it, which is why few devices have a cable nowadays. In many enterprise applications, having a cable is an instant disqualifying factor and might be why the Vision Pro might see limited adoption in those areas. Having a cable just feels like the antithesis of being premium, and it only extends the battery life by less than an hour than other headsets. The Quest Pro has a rated battery life of 2-3 hours, making me think that Apple should have offered a battery strap option as a counterweight and a way to do away with the cable if it bothers a user.
With the price where it is and the specs, as they are, this is not a consumer device, which is hard for some people to process when you consider how many consumer applications Apple showed off during the keynote. Apple is a consumer electronics company that mainly caters to those customers, but it isn’t with Vision Pro. The Vision Pro is Apple’s bridge to mainstream consumer AR with a mixed reality headset with all the capabilities of a future headset, but at a much higher price and probably with higher specs. Apple wants to court developers with its native support for Unity with gestures and 2-hour long battery life, which it achieves with an external battery pack.
Apple also talked about the software stack, including VisionOS, saying that the same underlying frameworks that power iOS and iPadOS are also included in VisionOS. Apple also teed up the Vision Pro and VisionOS compatibility with the rest of Apple’s devices by talking about the completion of Apple’s transition to Apple Silicon. This enables a game developer to use a single graphics architecture to build games for Apple’s entire ecosystem. It also means that developers can build towards Apple Silicon and easily port between MacOS, iOS, iPadOS, and now VisionOS, making Apple’s ecosystem even more attractive to developers.
Productivity and utility
One of the best features of the VisionOS and Vision Pro headset is the ability to connect to a MacBook seamlessly by simply looking at it. For productivity applications, users aren’t going to want to carry around a keyboard; they want to use the keyboard they already have. With VisionOS and a MacBook, simply looking at a MacBook will connect the headset to it, and the laptop will show up yet another virtual window among the many others already in the users’ field of view. Apple is also pitching Vision Pro as a great remote work solution enabling apps like Teams and Zoom, and FaceTime with group calls with spatial audio, making it easier to hear individual voices. Apple also talked about using popular productivity apps like Microsoft’s Office suite and wants people to think of this as a productivity device. Some people have likened the plethora of 2D apps and productivity to the Vision Pro being like an iPad on your face. While I wouldn’t go so far to call it that, it does currently fit the experience with a few exceptions, but I believe that will fade with time as more spatially aware apps are created by developers. Some of the Disney+ experiences that Disney CEO Bob Iger showed off might be a sneak peek into what’s possible.
One of the things that I think Apple didn’t hit on was productivity between devices like your iPhone and iPad, which could bring 5G connectivity. While Apple talked a lot about how the Vision Pro is portable and great for working on the go, there was nothing about its use outside or outside of the home, and that leads me to believe the company is primarily dependent on Wi-Fi for connectivity. Admittedly, I would not advise using it on public transit, but there are still many people who would love to use it where Wi-Fi connectivity is poor or slow. Perhaps that will have to wait until Apple launches its AR glasses, not this high-end pair of mixed reality goggles.
Privacy and Security
I am pleased to see Apple leaning into eye-tracking with the Vision Pro, especially talking about how important security and privacy will be. Apple has explicitly stated that all iris data and eye tracking information will remain on the device and be protected inside a secure local enclave, ensuring users’ biometric data is safe from hackers or snooping developers. Apple is accomplishing this with its Optic ID system, which will protect user data using Iris authentication and the user’s biometric data used for authentication. I have long talked about the importance of eye tracking as a user interface in VR and AR. I believe that Apple and Sony will help democratize the technology to the point where developers consider it a key feature. I also think Apple’s presence in the enterprise space for Mac and iPhone gives it a leg up on other XR headsets that might otherwise not have all the necessary qualifications. Although, I do think that competitive headsets like Varjo’s XR-3 might have deeper integration into existing ISVs and defense contractors.
Besides the $3,500 price tag, Apple surprised many people with a ‘next year’ launch date, indicating that it mostly wants developers to get six months with the device before any consumers can use it. I believe that Apple’s Vision Pro headset will be Apple’s steppingstone to AR; even though the company continues to claim this headset as an AR technology, it is very much a high-end VR headset with extremely high-quality passthrough AR capabilities, which is exactly what I’d expect from Apple. We are still years away from true see-through AR headsets, and I’m not sure if any AR headset will ever reach this level of quality and immersion, especially not at a more affordable price.
The target market for such an expensive device is developers, prosumers, and enterprises that aren’t bothered by the external battery and wire. I genuinely believe that Apple’s customer base will be within the enterprise productivity space, many of whom are likely also prosumers. That’s why I believe that Apple has leaned into the 2D apps and productivity over pushing gaming and fitness, which makes me think that Apple might be ceding that market to Meta until it gets enough developer support. Not to mention, I’m not sure people will necessarily be comfortable sweating it up and moving around aggressively in a $3,500 headset. With Meta pre-announcing the Quest 3 at $499 and launching it sooner than the Vision Pro, I believe that Apple will not connect very well with consumers with this headset and that volumes will be relatively low. Now that said, I do believe that has been Apple’s intent all along, and it can and will use the power of its retail presence to convince its customers that its Vision platform is the future of XR, and they will be able to see it in person in the best possible features and technologies available.
Apple is on a long journey to bring AR to the mass market, and the Vision Pro is the first expensive step. I don’t believe that Apple could necessarily ship a headset with the specs that the Vision Pro has today at a much lower price. But I also believe that the company will not capture much of the intended market with this headset and instead wants to capture the attention of developers and encourage them to develop for its platform. I wouldn’t bet against Apple, but I also think that the company hasn’t quite nailed down the new use cases for it yet, and that’s why I think this device is mainly trying to capture the mindshare of developers.
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