June 7, 2023 by Daniel W. Rasmus, Serious Insights
I have not yet placed an Apple Vision Pro on my face, but from what I can tell, the physical experience isn’t going to be that different from other headsets, but the software is certainly a leap ahead of many competitors and, in some ways, it may be a leap too early.
The most off-putting specification of the Apple Vision Pro is its price. The average American home will not find a $3,499 headset wrapped under a tree or menorah for the holidays. This price, however, is probably the right price for testing the market. It recognizes the costs associated with sophisticated technology.
Unlike phones, which benefit from profit margins supplemented by carrier subscriptions, the Vision Pro doesn’t appear to initially include partnerships beyond content. That leaves it to Apple to recoup all R&D costs. There is a profit to be made at $3,499, but it took a price like that to create a margin that fits Apple’s financial model.
With Apple Vision Pro, the company also seeks to define the Spatial Computing category, which it may well do. I like the pivot away from AR and VR, Mixed Reality and the other category tags. Spatial computing seems like an appropriate conceptual place to land. It keeps them clearly in the personal computing space and away from the wild edges of the Metaverse.
Actually mixing reality. Vision Pro includes the ability to, seemingly, shift easily from an in-headset experience to an external experience. Interestingly, Apple chose not to make the lenses opaque; Apple didn’t play optical tricks with the lenses but rather relies on the cameras to bring the outside world in.
Integrated spatial audio. The move to open headphones integrated into the headset allows Apple to apply its HomePod technology to customize the sound for each owner in each place they use the device. That the headset also works with Apple’s AirPods and other third-party earbuds is a plus. The design appears to preclude large headsets but should easily work with wireless earbuds, and perhaps smaller wired headphones, link in-ear-monitors.
Leveraging the Apple App experience. Unlike most other headsets, Apple enhances rather than replaces the familiar Apple iOS/iPadOS experiences—users won’t have to figure out how things work before finding value in their purchase.
The High-resolution micro-OLED display system. Seeing pixels immediately distances a VR or AR experience from being immersive. It remains to be seen how well Apple’s micro-OLED performs in various use cases, but the technology choice is right—and it challenges other headset makers to up their game. Unfortunately, most of them don’t have deep agreements with the world’s largest panel makers that will allow them to push the technology like Apple does.
Sensor processing. VR and AR rely heavily on processing data from their cameras, measurement sensors, and audio sensors. The recognition of this fact and the creation of the dedicated R1 chip to facilitate and manage sensor input makes the Vision Pro potentially less prone to the lags that create disorientation and visual discomfort for those in the headsets.
Apple Vision Pro features an ultra-high-resolution display system that packs 23 million pixels across two displays — more than a 4K TV for each eye — and the brand-new R1 chip, for a virtually lag-free, real-time view of the world. Source: Apple
An easy system for adding corrective lenses. Wearing glasses with a headset has always been an issue, even for those that offer enough room to wear glasses and the headset. While that design approach may result in clearer images, it also results in worries about bent frames and the ache of frames pushing into cheekbones and eye sockets and weighing on earlobes. Apple’s solution integrates lenses as “snap-ons” to the internal lens system. Some manufacturers have offered prescription lens support before, but Apple’s solution appears more elegant than previous attempts. Custom-made lenses, however, will add to the already high entry price of the Apple Vision Pro.
Elimination of controllers. In order to achieve a fully immersive experience, VR pioneers envisioned several types of wearable devices that would project human intent into the virtual worlds. Gloves and hand-held controllers recure across commercial and research designs. With Vision Pro, Apple eliminated the most common VR peripheral, opting for hand gestures and eye movements over clicks and pulls. Microsoft may have removed controllers first with their mixed-reality headset, the HoloLens, but Microsoft deemed their experiment a dead-end and discontinued development. We’ll see if Apple’s hardware can overcome the obstacles of Microsoft’s design and business model.
A tether. The very first thing I noticed about the Apple Vision Pro was its tether. Rather than being bound to a PC, it is bound to power. Apple dismisses this as a light-weight, tuck-in-your-pocket battery, but it’s going to be annoying and get in the way when actively using the headset as opposed to most of the released videos from Apple that showed people sitting or moving slowly.
Isolation remains. A headset takes people out of the moment. For gaming, sure, perhaps for some remote work situations, but shared experiences like watching a movie on a big screen will always be better with several people on a couch watching together and interacting. There may be a future where people share a video experience remotely, but I’m not sure we are moving toward that future, regardless of the capability to create that experience.
Weight. Early reviews already mention the weight of the Apple Vision Pro, the inevitable tug of gravity on something mounted on one’s head without sufficient support. Apple removed the top headband popular in many VR models which places the strain on the headband to prevent the headset from dropping. As comfortable as this new headband looks, it isn’t clear that it is up to the duty of long hours of wear.
Wandering down the uncanny valley. Apple knows about the uncanny valley, and yet, it still wandered into it. From 3D captured faces of those wearing the headset to digital eyes peering out from VisionOS, people will be uncomfortable.
In many cases, FaceTime’s value emanates from actually seeing loved ones, not their avatars.
On the other hand, I have written about training avatars who are driven by AI one moment and by a person the next. The avatar may have its day, but it will take some getting used to—and the discovery of boundaries where it just doesn’t work.
Although Disney’s Bob Igor showed a video with Mickey Mouse jumping out of a poster and into a living area and the Electrical Light Parade marching along a countertop, Apple generally stays away from the integration of digital objects onto everyday things and showed no hints of the Vision Pro augmenting reality with metadata.
I’m sure engineers played with those features, but the marketing team knows that showing the dystopian side of AR, the one where everything is a mass on overlays atop everything in the field of view, probably will put off more people than it attracts. Focusing on the Vision Pro as an extension of existing Apple experiences was the right play.
Apple has challenged the likes of HTC Vive and Meta Quest to create more integrated XR, VR and AR experiences. It isn’t clear that they have solved some of the fundamental downsides of the technology, like people wearing headsets in the same space, but they may have figured out a value proposition for individual headset use.
With the Apple Vision Pro, the company created a new reference platform that challenges the assumptions behind existing headsets and offers alternative approaches, like projecting the owner’s eyes out from the headset, that have yet to be tried at scale.
I do not see Apple cutting into the dedicated space carved out by Sony’s PlayStation® VR for gaming, but it will likely influence future features and design elements.
Keep in mind this is a first-generation Apple product. Impressive and groundbreaking in some ways, as expected, but Apple has yet to learn from the market. For those who owned an Apple Watch 1 or 2 (not to mention an early iPod), those experiences were useful but limited—the current watch technology appears lightyears ahead of those models even though they still sport the same watchbands.
The Apple Vision Pro will provide Apple with a way to gather intelligence, test its manufacturing capabilities, and consider how to make an even lighter, more power-efficient device.
If nothing else, Apple stopped the world from talking about Chat GPT and generative AI for a couple of hours. That’s a public relations triumph in itself.
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Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist and industry analyst who has helped clients put their future in context. Rasmus uses scenarios to analyze trends in society, technology, economics, the environment, and politics in order to discover implications used to develop and refine products, services and experiences. He leverages this work and methodology for content development, workshops and for professional development.