Apple Vision Pro.
An appleThe new Vision Pro headset has sparked a resurgence of interest in head-worn computers that immerse users in a virtual world.
Engineers have been dreaming of virtual reality since 1968, when a University of Utah professor created the first 3D VR headset, and since then some of the most powerful consumer electronics companies have released headsets, including Nintendo, Microsoft, Meta, Google and Sony. No one was a hit.
Now Apple is at the table, and virtual reality experts and developers say it has a chance to succeed where others haven’t.
“When people ask me what’s really special about this announcement, in one word, it’s Apple. The largest technology company in the world, and also the most responsible,” said Ori Inbar, co-founder of Super Ventures and CEO of the Augmented World Expo, an industry conference. “They always put everything behind every product they put out there. And that’s exactly the message they’re sending to the XR industry, but also to everyone else out there.”
Apple’s reputation and track record give it the benefit of the doubt when it comes to truly new technology, and many consumers already own and like Apple products.
Apple commercialized the success of multi-touch displays with the iPhone, which transformed the smartphone industry by showing the world a new way to interact with phones. It may be able to replicate this in the VR industry with Vision Pro’s gesture and voice UI. Unlike other headphones, it doesn’t require a controller.
“Part of Apple’s effect is that they’ve built that brand equity, they’ve done it over and over again, across multiple categories, whether it’s a watch, a music player and of course, a smartphone,” said Tipatat Chenawasin, general partner in venture reality fund. “What I think is really interesting about it as well is that they’ve clearly laid out their vision for the future — this is the next iPhone, the next big platform.”
Vision Pro is significantly more powerful than almost all competing products on the market. It’s equipped with two high-resolution screens, a battery of cameras and sensors, and custom processors that reduce lag and lag. Simply put: it can do more than any other headset.
The increased power under Apple’s glasses also enabled a relatively new concept, sometimes called “XR,” “mixed reality” or “crossover,” or, as Apple calls it, “spatial computing.”
Cameras on the outside of the Vision Pro can show the real world in near-real time inside the headset, making the technology less isolating and addressing a long-standing problem with virtual reality: users can’t see what’s around them while they’re inside. Virtual reality.
But Apple also needs to change public perception of virtual reality. The moment when everyday users wear headphones on a daily basis may be years away.
The new Apple Vision Pro headphones are shown during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in Cupertino, California, June 5, 2023.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
One notable aspect of Apple’s Vision Pro is that it has a lot of raw power and expensive parts. Previous Apple flagships didn’t emphasize processor speed, display resolution or specs – the Vision Pro does.
A short and incomplete list of its components that we know so far:
- Two Micro-OLED displays about one inch in diameter, each with a resolution above a 4K TV.
- An Apple M2 processor, the same as in a laptop, and a dedicated R1 processor for cameras and other visuals.
- Eye tracking.
- Six microphones.
- Twelve cameras and five sensors for tracking hand gestures.
All of these specs combined mean the Vision Pro operates at a higher level of fidelity than products currently on the market, such as Meta’s $299 Quest 2, which uses a mobile processor and has lower-resolution screens.
The Vision Pro also costs a lot more: it costs at least $3,499, and possibly even more if users opt for custom lenses or other potential upgrades, such as storage.
The powerful specs allow the Vision Pro to display the outside world via video feeds from inside the headset in real-time, making it the first device to do both high-quality VR, which transports users into a virtual world, and augmented reality, which integrates virtual objects in the real world.
“Apple seems to be all in on the idea that it’s going to let you see outside, but it’s going to let you see outside with cameras and traversal and very, very, very, low latency and very, very, very, powerful computing and processing, applied to the problem,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential, which demonstrated the headset earlier this week on Apple’s campus.
That’s compared to competing devices like Magic Leap and Microsoft’s Hololens, which use transparent displays that require less processing power but offer lower-quality images.
This level of visual quality means demos can be better and developers don’t have to be limited based on hardware. There is room for new experiences that require a lot of processing power.
It also establishes a threshold for virtual reality experiences in the future: Once people have tried an Apple headset with thousands of dollars worth of computing equipment, it will be harder to use a cheaper headset without seeing the trade-offs.
“Apple is adamantly saying that to do VR, or AR, or what they call ‘spatial computing,’ this is the experience you have to offer, and that’s the price it’s going to cost,” Greengart said. “Anyone else who comes out with a product at this price point is just going to be dismissed as niche. But Apple, because of its history with consumer products and because of repeating its history, you can expect the experience to get better over time and the price goes down — well, hopefully it goes down.”
Apple Vision Pro.
Just like the iPhone did, the Vision Pro introduces a new kind of user interface.
The iPhone introduced multi-touch screens, replacing styluses and mechanical keyboards, and enabled web browsing and full-color maps on a handheld device.
“User experience is always the most important aspect. The most important part of the iPhone wasn’t scaling it down, the quality of the multi-touch display, but making the UX feel good and magical,” Chenavasin said.
Vision Pro replaces controllers with simple gestures. The user’s eyes become a cursor and a simple tap of the thumb and forefinger selects a button.
“No other headset has really introduced eye pinch as a primary mode of interaction,” said Jamin Hu, CTO of Doublepoint, a privately held firm working on software to enable gesture-based interactions. “Apple is the first we’ve seen focus on building their entire operating system to support eye tracking.”
Apple Vision Pro.
Eye tracking often uses small sensors to see where the user’s gaze rests. It’s working well, according to people who supervised hands-on demonstrations earlier this week. “The Meta headset has a similar feature, but it doesn’t work as well as the Apple Vision, if at all,” writes CNBC’s Steve Kovacs.
A gesture-based interface without a controller has been a goal of the VR industry for years.
“I think it’s pretty well known in the industry that eye pinching is magical. It’s even faster than a computer mouse. And it’s easier to learn,” Hu said.
Apple even cited its track record for new computer interfaces as one reason to believe in Vision Pro’s potential.
“So, in the same way that the Mac introduced us to personal computing and the iPhone introduced us to mobile computing, Apple Vision Pro will introduce us to spatial computing,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the launch.
The Apple ecosystem
Apple CEO Tim Cook stands next to the new Apple Vision Pro headphones.
Justin Sullivan | News from Getty Images | Getty Images
The VR industry has been waiting years for Apple’s official entry. Developers and experts believed that Apple could set the standard after releasing its own headphones. He invented the iPhone and may now be inventing the next major mainstream computing product.
“You have this element that Apple never enters an industry until they really know it’s going to be something special,” said Sean Mann, CEO of RP1, a technology firm that works to deliver immersive online experiences.
Apple will likely have the strongest lineup of apps that can take advantage of the unique aspects of VR headsets. It already has millions of software developers, and Vision Pro will support iPhone and iPad apps at launch. No other headset has this.
“Apple has the unique ability to catalyze developer interest in new platforms,” Greengart said. “For Apple Vision Pro, the App Store will be there on day one.”
Plus, Apple has a product ecosystem to integrate with, from iPhones, Apple Watches, and even Macs. The headset can even function as a massive Mac monitor for getting work done.
Apple also has retail stores that are suitable for first experiences in virtual reality for people who are curious about the technology. Apple’s headset requires significant configuration, including head scanning and custom lenses for people who wear glasses. But if any company was right to provide these demos to give them the best chance to wow, it’s Apple.
“No one else in the industry has what Apple has. Apple has the phone, they have the watch, they have the desktop, and now they have headphones, and they all work with each other,” Mann said. “Something I shoot on my mobile now can easily be shown on my new Vision Pro, and that ecosystem doesn’t exist in any other VR manufacturer.”
Getting developers excited about an untapped market
The industry is still nascent. Data from Forrester, a research firm, shows that 79% of online adults do not currently use a VR headset.
“It could read as, ‘Oh my God, most people aren’t going to use this device,’ or it could read as, ‘Hey, now there’s an opportunity to tap into an untapped market with something that will help the average consumer,'” Mike Proulx said. , director of research at Forrester.
But it’s expected to be a low-volume product, selling hundreds of thousands of units a year, according to TFI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, compared to the tens of millions of iPhones Apple sells in a quarter.
But many in the VR industry think that’s fine for this kind of product, which isn’t yet destined for the mainstream due to its price, bulky battery, and novelty.
Instead, it’s possible to see the Vision Pro as something of a developer kit. Sure, some Apple fans and enthusiasts will buy it and everyone wants to try it out, but what it actually does is spark a gold rush for software developers to create must-have apps for the platform.
Ultimately, like other computers, Apple’s Vision Pro may drop in price, updated models may become thinner and lighter, and it may become a smartphone must-have.
“I’ve talked to a lot of developers who are already in the XR space, and they’ve all said they’re interested in getting these headsets and getting their hands on them and using them. Every single one of them,” said Anschel Sagg, an analyst at Moor Insights.
When the iPhone introduced multi-touch, advanced phone cameras and mobile internet, it gave birth to Uber and Instagram. It now costs $3,500 to start tinkering with software that could become commonplace for everyday people as the market potentially expands.
“If you could get your hands on an iPhone two or three years before it was released and you had access to an understanding of the hardware, wouldn’t you? How much would you pay for it? This is the future today,” Chenawasin said. “If I were a developer, $3,500 is a small price to pay for that.”