I was in a movie theater last December watching Avatar: The Way of Water in 3D and I was like, “Wow, that’s a compelling movie that I’d love to see in next-gen VR.” That’s exactly what I experienced. Apple’s Vision Pro headphones and yes it is amazing.
I just tried out the Vision Pro in a series of carefully curated demos during WWDC at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters. I’ve been using cutting-edge VR devices for years, and I’ve found that all kinds of augmented reality memories pop into my brain. Apple’s compact – but not small – headphones remind me of the Meta Quest Pro designed by Apple. The backstrap fit was comfortable yet stretchy, with a back fit adjustment dial and a top strap for stability.
I couldn’t wear my glasses during the demonstration. Apple’s headphones don’t support glasses, instead relying on custom Zeiss inserts to correct the wearer’s vision. Apple was able to easily find lenses that fit my vision well enough so that everything looks crystal clear, which is no easy task. We also tweaked the fit and tweaked the spatial audio for my head, a process that will be perfected when the headphones launch in 2024.
From there I did my demos mostly sitting down and found myself surprised from the start. The pass-through video camera quality on these headphones is good — really, really good. Not as good as my own vision, but good enough to see the room well, see the people in it with me, see the notifications on my wrist watch easily. The only headphones that have done this before are the Varjo XR-3, and Apple’s display and cameras can rival those.
Apple’s floating grid of apps appears when I press the top digital crown, which automatically centers the home screen wherever I look. I set up eye tracking, which worked like many other VR headsets I’ve used: I saw glowing dots while the musical notes played, and a successful chime when everything worked.
From there, the interface was surprisingly smooth. Viewing interface icons or options slightly enlarges them or changes how bold they appear. Tapping with your fingers while looking at something opens an app.
I’ve used tons of hand tracking tech on headsets like the Hololens 2 and Meta Quest 2 and Pro, and it usually requires a lot of hand movement. I might be really lazy here. I pressed to open icons even with my hand in my lap and it worked.
Scrolling involves pinching and dragging with fingers; again, pretty easy to do. I resized the windows by moving my hand to throw a window across the room or hang it closer to me. I had multiple apps open at once, including Safari, Messages, and Photos. It was easy enough to scroll through, although sometimes my eye tracking needed extra concentration to handle.
I don’t know how the Vision Pro will work with keyboards and trackpads, as I haven’t been able to demo the headset that way. But it works with Apple and Mac’s Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad, but not iPhone and iPad or Watch touchscreens — at least not now.
Recruitment in reality
I reviewed some photos in Apple’s preset photo album, plus some 3D photos and videos shot with the Vision Pro’s 3D camera. All the images looked really sharp, and one panoramic shot that flashed around me looked almost like a window to a landscape that stretched just beyond the room I was in.
Apple has 3D Vision Pro voluminous landscapes that are fascinating backgrounds as 3D wallpaper, but looking at one really shows how good this Micro OLED display looks. A lake seemed to roll down to a rocky shore that ended right where the real coffee table was in front of me.
Raising my hands to my face, I saw the headset detaching my hands from VR, a trick already in ARKit. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s good enough. Similarly, there’s a wild new trick where anyone else in the room can appear as a ghost if you look at them, a fuzzy halo with their real video image slowly materializing. It aims to help make meaningful contact with people while wearing the headset. I was wondering how you could turn this off or set it to be less present, but this is a very new idea in mixed reality.
Apple’s Digital Crown, a small watch face borrowed from the Apple Watch, handles mixed reality. I can rotate the dial to slowly expand the 3D panorama until it surrounds me all around, or roll it back so it just appears a bit like a 3D window.
Cinematic fidelity that amazed me
The cinema screening was what really shocked me. I played a 3D clip of Avatar: The Way of Water in headphones on a screen in various viewing modes, including cinema. Apple’s move to mixed reality may also obscure the rest of the world a bit, in a similar way to how Magic Leap 2 is doing with its AR. But the Way of Water scenes gave me chills. It was bright. It felt like a movie experience. I don’t feel that way in other VR headsets.
Apple also showed off its Immersive Video format, which comes as an extension to Apple TV Plus. It’s a 180-degree video format similar to what I’ve seen before as a concept, but with really strong resolution and video quality. A demo reel of Alicia Keys singing, Apple Sports events, documentary footage and more rolled in front of me, a teaser of what’s to come. 180-degree video never looks as crisp to me as movie content on a big screen, but the sports clips I saw made me wonder how good virtual Jets games could be in the future. Things have gone too far.
Would I pay $3,499 for a head-worn movie theater? No, but this is clearly one of the biggest unique advantages of this device. The resolution and brightness of the display was surprising.
Compelling avatars (I mean personas)
Apple Personas are 3D-scanned avatars generated by using the Vision Pro to scan your face, making a version of you that shows up in FaceTime chats if you want, or also on the outside of the Vision Pro’s curved OLED display. to indicate whether you’re “currently” again or in an app. I didn’t see how that external display worked, but I had a FaceTime with someone in their Persona form and it was fine. Again, he looked surprisingly good.
I’ve seen Meta’s ultra-realistic Codec Avatars, which aim for a realistic representation of people in VR. They’re stunning, and I also saw the phone-scanned scaled-down version of the Meta in early form last year, where a talking head spoke to me in VR. Apple’s Persona looked better than Meta’s phone-scanned avatar, though a little fuzzy around the edges, like a dream. The woman whose persona was scanned appeared in her own window, not in full screen form.
And I wondered how expressive the emotions were with the Vision Pro’s scanning cameras. The Pro has the ability to scan jaw movement, similar to the Quest Pro, and the Persona I spoke to was friendly and smiling. What would it look like for someone I know, like my mother? It was good enough here that I forgot it was a scan.
We demoed a bit of Apple’s Freeform app, where a collaboration window opened while my Persona friend chatted in another window. 3D objects appeared in the Freeform app, a complete home scan. It looked realistic enough.
Dinosaurs in my world
The final demo was an app experience called Encounter Dinosaurs, which reminded me of the early VR app demos I had years ago: An experience that simply highlighted the immersive “wow” factor of dinosaurs appearing in a 3D window that seemed to open into the back wall of my showroom. Creatures that looked like carnotaurus slowly walked through the window and entered my space.
All of my demos were seated except for one where I stood up and walked around a bit. That sounds like it’s not going to be an impressive demo, but then again, the quality of the visuals and how they looked in conjunction with the across-the-room video capture was what made it feel so great. When the dinosaur clicked into my hand, it felt pretty real. As well as a butterfly that danced around the room and tried to land on my outstretched finger.
I smiled. But more than that, I was impressed when I took the headphones off. My own day-to-day vision wasn’t that much sharper than what Apple’s pass-through cameras provided. The difference between the two was closer than I would have expected, and that’s what makes Apple’s approach to mixed reality in VR work so well.
Then there’s the battery. There’s a wired battery that’s needed to power the headphones instead of a built-in battery like most others have. This meant I had to pick up the battery when I started moving, which is probably why so many of Apple’s demos were sitting.
What about the gym and all?
Apple didn’t put much emphasis on fitness at all, a surprise to me. VR is already a great platform for fitness, although no one has perfected headset design for fitness comfort. Perhaps having this battery pack at the moment will limit movement in active games and experiences. Perhaps Apple will announce more plans here later. The only taste of health and wellness I got was a one-minute micro meditation that was similar to the one on the Apple Watch. It was beautiful and again a great showcase of the quality of the display, but I want more.
2024 is still some time away, and the price of Apple’s headphones is way out of range for most people. And I have no idea how functional these current headphones will feel in everyday use. But Apple showed off a display and interface that was far better than I was ready for. If Apple can build on that and Vision Pro finds ways to expand its mixed reality capabilities, then who knows what else is possible?
This was just my quick reaction to a quick set of demos in one day in Cupertino. There are many more questions to come.