It's no secret that Apple tends to wait to wade into a product category, and when they do they produce something shockingly better than everything that preceded it. The iPod completely demolished the MP3 player market, the iPhone started a revolution in smartphones that destroyed BlackBerry, Nokia, and Palm, and the iPad discarded everything Microsoft had been trying to make happen for years with Tablet PCs in favor of a more phone-like approach. And now Apple is trying it again with the augmented reality headset market with their new Vision Pro headset.
But unlike those previous Apple-led rethinks of what the product category was supposed to be, Apple is in uncharted territory. The iPod was "1000 songs in your pocket", the iPhone was "An iPod, a Phone, an Internet Communicator", and Vision Pro is… "Welcome to the era of spatial computing." Okay then.
HTC, Microsoft, and Meta all made impressive VR and AR headsets that nobody bought.
VR headsets aren't anything new. I first played around with HTC's Vive VR headset back in 2016 and came away impressed, and while HTC has iterated on the technology and seen competitors come and go, the core use case hasn't changed much — 3D games and experiences — and the market has not taken off. The hardware is increasingly impressive with each iteration, but the "why you need this" still hasn't been satisfactorily answered for the vast majority of people.
Same goes for Microsoft's Hololens, which was equally impressive on a hardware front with its transparent display panels and the ability to overlay content on the real world. But it was expensive and it struggled to explain how it would truly be useful without being awkward in more than a handful of areas. The US Army tried a pilot program with a mil-spec version of Hololens, but that also fell flat after troops struggled with finding the tech useful use and comfortable to wear long-term.
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Now Apple has entered the fray with the Vision Pro, the most technically significant and audacious AR headset created yet, and by a wide margin. Nilay Patel of The Verge went heads-on with the Vision Pro and said it was the best AR experience he's ever had, so good he was able to use his phone with minimal fuss even though the headset was still strapped to his face. But despite how technically impressive the tech and demo is, the question still needs asking: Why do I need this?
And to be frank, Apple has not answered that question, not by a long shot. Maybe there's no simple answer to it, but I've not seen anything yet that tells me that Apple has an answer for the fundamental problems that have plagued AR and VR for almost a decade. Fixing lag and offering a more accurate rendering of the outside environment is a solvable problem; Apple fixed it by simply throwing absurd hardware at it. And whatever technical issues the Vision Pro faces are also something Apple can solve — future headsets will have better battery life and clearer rendering of your eyeballs on the outside and crisper audio and so on.
With bottomless resources and the world's most-talented designers and engineers, it's no surprise Vision Pro is a technical marvel.
The hardware was never really the hard part. If there's anything Apple could knock out of the park, it's the tech side of it. They have nearly bottomless resources and some of the most-talented engineers and designers in the world working for them. Of course Apple's first AR headset was going to one-up every other AR headset in almost every way imaginable; Apple wouldn't do it if that wasn't the case.
But the fundamental lingering questions about AR still are not answered by the Apple Vision Pro. It does not conclusively answer why working in a headset is better than in front of some screens apart from "you can have more screens!". It has no good explanation for why I should sit back on my couch and watch a movie through a headset instead of on a big screen with surround sound speakers. It doesn't provide any good reason why it's worth it for me to part with $3500. And if Apple can't answer those questions, then who can?
It's been a while since we've seen a product seemingly this aimless from Apple, and certainly never something that's been such equal parts gobsmackingly impressive while puzzlingly ill-defined.
Long-time HTC CEO Cher Wang told CNBC that the launch of Apple Vision Pro was "a watershed moment for the industry, and a big validation of everything HTC Vive has been working on.". But I'm not so sure it's good news for HTC at all. For one, Apple completely showed up even their top-end Vive XR Elite. But also, it still suffers from the same fundamental "but why?" problem as the Vive line.
Maybe I'm wrong and Apple Vision Pro will turn out to be a huge success. I don't think anybody has any expectations that this first version will be a blow-out in sales. It's very expensive and lacks that "killer app" that truly explains why it's needed in your life, so it will be a hard sell. That's sometimes the case with new Apple products, but eventually they figure it out and adjust course.
But I'm not convinced that will be the case this time. If we take the case of Apple realizing that people preferred to just use the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker and notification machine and adjusting future versions of watchOS to cater to those demands, we also must acknowledge that Apple was very clear that the original Apple Watch was supposed to effectively be a full-fledged computer on your wrist. That clear vision is lacking with Vision Pro, and the eye-watering price will keep it out of the hands of all but a few well-heeled enthusiasts. Without useful masses of customer feedback, how will Apple effectively adjust?
If Vision Pro fails, it will be spectacular and it will bring the entire AR and VR industry down with it.
I hate to be such a pessimist about this, but I am reflecting on Apple's reveal of the Vision Pro pretty much like I ended up reflecting on my theater experience watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I walked in with anticipation and apprehension about how this was going to play out, throughout the presentation I swung between "meh" and "that was amazing" and "fire the idiot that wrote this", and I walked out feeling empty and even despondent about the future of the franchise (or market).
The lack of clarity and high price for Apple Vision Pro are going to be a one-two punch to its viability. All the technical impressiveness in the world doesn't make up for the fact that Apple cannot adequately explain why I need this. It is by far the brightest spotlight shown on AR to date, and if Apple fails here it won't just be a black eye for them: it'll be the humiliating death of the entire AR and VR industry. If Apple can't make this work, how can anybody else?
And if they can't answer the question of "why", they'll deserve it.