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The long-held wisdom with Apple is that they're rarely the first these days in a new product category, but when they do jump in they completely change the game. The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, but it was a revolution compared to what BlackBerry, Nokia, and Palm were doing. The iPad wasn't the first tablet computer, but it blew all of the Windows PC tablets out of the water. They take everything that other companies have played around with, remix it, add in Apple's increasingly absurd hardware and silicon design chops, and create a new contender that is a step above everything that came before.
And so, today, that's exactly what Apple did today when it unveiled their new Apple Vision Pro AR headset. Samsung, HTC, Facebook, Sony, Microsoft, Valve and have been making headsets for years. Some were full VR, some AR, some blending the two (XR, as Microsoft calls it with their Hololens project), and over the years they've gotten better and better. And today in walked Apple throwing down the must absurd gauntlet. They learned from everything good and bad those companies on their path to not yet getting augmented reality headsets to be widely accepted and assembled something so technically astounding that it's hard not to be impressed.
They managed to pack an M2 processor (the same thing they put in the latest iPads and MacBooks), six microphones, eight external cameras, and LIDAR, along with a new R1 chip to process all of these inputs with 12 milliseconds lag — 1/80th of a second. Optically, there is a pair of 4K+ OLED displays behind adjustable lenses (plus a Zeiss lens partnership so those of us that wear glasses can spend even more).
This is all put into an absurdly compact case made from machine aluminum with a curved glass front over another display — this time it's an outward facing curved OLED panel under a fresnel lens — that is used to show either video of your eyes with appropriate depth mapping so you can more naturally connect with people around you, or a gentle swirly light show thing reminiscent of the lights on top of Apple's HomePod speakers. It also has speakers pointed towards your ears (though you can pair it up with headphones), a wide soft strap to keep it comfortably secured to your head, and interchangeable face cups to interface between the headset and your, well, your face.
There are really only two hardware compromises. The first is that despite it being as svelte as possible it's still a big honkin' headset you strap to your face. The technology to make it a truly usable yet unobtrusive AR headset like a pair of glasses just doesn't exist yet. The second tradeoff is the battery, which Apple kept off the headset as a pocketable but tethered external battery pack.
This is all the hardware side of Apple doing "that thing everybody else did, but better." It's a huge leap in technical capability and design for headsets and it will completely shake up the previously iterative headset market. But… the software matters even more. So, let's talk about Apple visionOS.
visionOS powers the Vision Pro, and is built upon the same foundations as iOS. In fact, there's a lot of similarity with the user interface design between visionOS and iOS, with similar iconography, app layouts, and interaction ideas. But unlike an iPhone you poke or a buttons you press, Apple Vision Pro is relying on downward-facing cameras and depth mapping to capture the motions of your hands and fingers, plus cameras inside to capture the motion of your eyes. This will no doubt have a learning curve, as it's an entirely new interaction paradigm for most of us, though knowing Apple it probably borrows a lot of gestures from iPhones and MacBook trackpads.
But unlike Meta's immersive "Metaverse" headsets or HTC's gaming-focused Vives, Apple's approach most closely mirrors that of Microsoft. When you put on the Vision Pro the screens fill with a view of the world outside the headset that you can overlay multiple app windows on top off. Apple is pitching visionOS as a new "computing" platform for both work and entertainment — they call it "spatial computing". In essence, your workspace can be whatever and wherever you want it. It's just windows floating in space and some 3D models you can walk around, and only you can see them. And because Apple really sweats the details and wanted to make everything feel "present" to you, they went as far as making the slightly-3D interface elements reflect light and cast shadows from the natural light in your space.
And that's the thing with visionOS right now, it's largely a windowed apps interface that will feel familiar to anybody that's used a computer. But unlike Hololens, because this is a 100% screen-based system instead of an overlay on the real world, those windowed apps can be larger and fill up more of your field of view (no word on that right now, btw) and you can also activate "environments" to fill up the space beyond the screens. Very handy for when you want to tune out the world and watch a movie or focus on your Microsoft Excel spreadsheets — because yeah, that's a thing that's happening here too.
The apps catalog is what will really make this work, and if there's any company that can make that happen it's Apple. There was no real in-depth look at any of the apps this could run, though. Lots of quick cuts and pretty shots of photos and videos and breathing apps, but it had a lot of the polish of "this is a demo of what it could do" and not what it actually does today. Especially the highlight real that Disney's Bob Iger presented.
Apple is presenting the Vision Pro as a headset you wear a lot, if not all the time. They showed people just idly wearing it around the kitchen or while packing a suitcase. And they have not at all provided the use case for that — I admittedly spend a lot of my time throughout the day looking at screens, but I'm also not sure if I want to only be looking at screens. There are a lot of unanswered questions here that Apple is going to have to answer.
On one hand, the specs and demos provided for Vision Pro were technically astounding. And on the other hand, the pitch on "why I need this" boiled down to "you can have a huge screen anywhere!" and I am just not sold on that. I tried out HTC's Vive XR Elite earlier this year and came away really impressed, but did I end up following through to buy one? Nope, because at the end of the day it just wasn't "I need this" enough for me.
Apple hasn't come close to answering the "why do I need this?" question.
And while "why do I need this?" is already a hard question to answer, the even harder one for Apple will be "why do I need to pay $3500 for this?" Don't get me wrong, I am certain that the hardware alone is worth that price — I cannot overstate how impressed I was by the physical technology and design here. Vision Pro will be without a question the best VR/AR headset on the market. That's what Apple does. But for $3500 it does… what, exactly?
This is often the case with modern first-generation Apple products. The original iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch were flashes in the pan, and could've been written off as duds. But Apple kept at it, improving on the design but also smartly reponding to user feedback to adjust their path forward for these devices. The iPad was thought of as an entertainment device and is evolving into general computing, the original iPhone was incredibly limited in functionality (it didn't have apps or copy-paste!), the first Apple Watch tried to be a computer on your wrist intead of a glorified fitness tracker and notifications screen. And surely too, if Apple intends to make Vision Pro a thing going forward it will evolve.
That's assuming it's not a complete and utter dud. Given that price point, no matter how good it is it may well be an utter failure and be the final nail in the coffin that was the AR/VR experiment.
Coming in 2024
The best AR headset, probably
This thing is a technical tour de force and will without a doubt be the best VR headset ever produced.