Apple’s Vision Pro: A concept prototype with this enormous potential

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The Vision Pro is mostly a concept prototype that developers can use to explore what might be possible, and that a very select group of spendy consumers will buy just for the novelty of it all.

Apple

I’m not getting one. At $3,500 and with unsettled questions about the cost (and appropriate prescription) for those wearing glasses, it’s just not something I’m prepared to buy. At least not this first-generation product.

Also: I tried Apple Vision Pro and it’s far ahead of where I expected

But think about early generations of the Mac, the iPhone, the iPad, and the Apple Watch. Each of those first versions had much of the DNA and special sauce that took those products to epic heights after a few years.

The Vision Pro has its own unique DNA and special sauce, so it’s clear that once the technology catches up with the vision (see what I did there?), Apple’s mixed-reality headset products will — eventually — become market leaders themselves.

Also: Apple Vision Pro first take: 3 reasons this changes everything

But, for now, for this Vision Pro v1.0, Apple faces a rough road to adoption.

A device only an early adopter could love

Let’s first look at what’s going to limit sales of this product. Obviously, there’s the price tag. That’s a hellalot of cash to spend for a head-mounted external monitor (more on that, later). But it’s more than price. It’s the fact that the unit is also hecka heavy.

Folks like Marques Brownlee and Tested’s Norman Chan, who attended the Apple event and got hands-on time, report that although the device is extremely well made, its metal infrastructure, huge number of cameras, and multiple screens add up to something that’s probably too heavy to wear for very long.

Then there’s the battery. It connects to the Vision Pro via a long cable. You’re supposed to carry the battery in a pocket while connected. Seriously, that’s the plan. Even then, battery life is a mere two hours. Yes, you can plug into wall power. But two hours of battery life for a device that’s fundamentally a personal movie screen is very limiting.

And, at least for now, there’s the lack of applications. Beyond a few basics (which I’ll discuss below), what’s the compelling killer app for this thing? It’s not here yet.

That Apple magic

But then there’s the Apple special sauce. Brownlee, who is not often given to hyperbole, describes the eye tracking as “magic.” It’s apparently implemented so well it feels like you just think at something and it happens.

Also: Wear glasses? Apple’s already expensive Vision Pro headset will cost you even more

Our own Jason Hiner, ZDNET’s Editor in Chief, also had a chance to experience the Vision Pro. He, too, commented on how good the eye tracking was, along with the ease of initial setup and calibration:

Frankly, after the demo I thought about how important and effective the eye-tracking is for everything you do in the Vision Pro, and I was startled to think about how that simple calibration was all it took to dial it in.

Hiner also discussed the displays inside the device:

The display never skips, lags, or glitches while you’re watching content, jumping between apps, or moving around your space.

I’m definitely vulnerable to motion sickness from these devices and I got no sense of disorientation or discomfort from the Vision Pro demo.

To be honest, one of my biggest personal concerns is the barf factor. I can’t even play most video games without feeling that uncomfortable urge to hurl. I’ve been worried that the price of entry to this new technology would be a constantly churning gut. But if Jason’s experience tracks for the rest of us, perhaps that won’t be an issue.

Also: The best VR headsets for gaming, the metaverse, and beyond

The device doesn’t use controllers (although you can use a real keyboard and mouse for pro work, if you wish). Instead, the device’s cameras just track hand movements. You click by touching two fingers together. The Vision Pro’s on-board cameras keep track of everything in the environment.

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The eye animation is not some cartoonish effect, but more like a deep fake of what the wearer’s eyes would look like behind goggles.

Apple

Although I suspect it will be prone to seeming a bit creepy in an uncanny valley sort of way, the front-facing video screen is brilliant. Because there are cameras inside the unit to do the eye tracking, that data is available to project an animation of the wearer’s eyes on the external screen. Rather than a user simply being behind an opaque black slab, people interacting with the user will have a better sense of attention and engagement.

The eye animation is not some cartoonish effect, but more like a deep fake of what the wearer’s eyes would look like behind goggles of the thickness and depth of the Vision Pro. This makes for a particularly realistic appearance.

Also: The 4 best AR glasses: Pro-level AR and XR headsets

I think this display is interesting for a first-generation device. But I think it will be game-changing as Apple shrinks the headset to eye glasses-size over the years. Because instead of opaque glasses (which are disconcerting for people interacting with the wearer), the external screen will provide a better connection on some fundamentally human emotional level.

There’s probably more to the special Apple-ness DNA in the product, but so far, nobody outside Apple has spent more than 30 minutes with the device.

Why would anyone buy this thing?

Let’s be clear. I’m not buying one. Probably, neither are you. In my case, there’s no way I can justify spending what would probably be $4,000 after custom lenses. But if it were a thousand bucks or even, maybe, $1,500, I’d probably tap my Apple Watch to the checkout kiosk at my local Apple store.

As I mentioned earlier, one key reason to buy a Vision Pro would be to use it as a head-mounted external display. After all, Apple did show the ability to open up a Mac desktop inside a virtual space.

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 At a more accessible point, the ability to place desktops and windows in full-field-of-view virtual space could — just on its own — be worth the price of admission.

Apple

We don’t know if this is just one desktop window, whether multiple desktops can be shown, and how big the window can be. But if the desktop is flexible enough to get wider and narrower, show multiple instances, and do all the other things pro users do with multiple monitors, it could be a win. I have four monitors on my desktop; sometimes, these are not enough. Very large displays or arrays of displays have proven productivity benefits.

At a more accessible point, the ability to place desktops and windows in full-field-of-view virtual space could — just on its own — be worth the price of admission.

Also: The best large monitors (and why curved displays are top picks)

Another obvious application is 3D modeling using tools like Autodesk Fusion 360. Today, we model with a representation of 3D objects, but in 2D space. It would be simply awesome to be able to manipulate the 3D objects built in such tools in an actual 3D environment.

I reached out to Autodesk about the Vision Pro and the likelihood of a Fusion 360 port to the Vision Pro. Nicolas Fonta, Autodesk Senior Director & General Manager for XR told me:

Autodesk has a long history of working within Apple’s ecosystem to advance technology solutions for our customers. Today Apple announced a beautiful product with thoughtful execution that has the potential to change collaboration and how we experience and consume content.

We believe XR will become a critical and highly effective way for our customers to spatially engage with Autodesk solutions in this next generation of computing, so we are committed to partnering with the leading hardware providers to deliver intuitive, frictionless experiences. We are especially encouraged by Apple’s commitment to privacy and security as a foundation.

Developers, developers, developers

There are a bunch of other application ideas that could — if actual applications are built — justify spending $3,500 or more on a Vision Pro.

Think of field service technicians that, using an AI-augmented app, could look through a Vision Pro device and see components labeled, even deep inside a repair. With two hands occupied with tools, a glance of an eye or a quick word could summon detailed repair instructions, or animations could be presented inside the display — in precise alignment with the actual component being repaired.

Similar applications could be used by medical professionals, interior designers, office planners — the list goes on. While Apple isn’t calling the Vision Pro a developer release as I predicted last week, in many ways it really is. After all, it’s the developer community that will bring this thing to life.

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Another application is in the area of virtual exposure therapy. This is the therapeutic practice of systematically helping someone with a fear overcome it by gradually acclimating them to the experience. Someone with a fear of heights might be able to safely experience what it’s like to be at destinations of greater and greater height from inside the Vision Pro. Someone with a fear of flying might be taken on a virtual plane flight.

At Monday’s WWDC keynote, Apple showed a ludicrous demo where a father, wearing a Vision Pro, used it to film a 3D “movie” of his kid’s birthday. But while that example was aspirationally wacky, capturing 3D video clips could prove hugely beneficial for training courses and other demonstrations, to be embedded inside of point-of-function applications.

This is no small thing. ZDNET’s Hiner described it this way:

Videos experienced in this way on the Vision Pro have a level of richness and realism that represents one of the most exciting leaps forward in tech I’ve seen over the past two decades.

Nobody really expects this feature to be used much at family events, but given how good Jason reported the immersive experience of these videos to be, I can foresee new training and professional content being developed using this new camera capability.

Also: The 4 best free video editing apps: Free but powerful software

Keep in mind that many of the early applications for the Vision Pro may not find their way to the public app store. I can see cases where companies would build their own internal apps and outfit their own personnel with these devices — all to provide some level of vertical functionality for company-specific applications.

But what about consumers?

Two words: the price. Everyone who talks about the Vision Pro will be banging that drum. But it’s more than that. The device can’t run on battery for more than two hours. That almost completely nixes the ability of the device to provide value on a plane flight. Most movies run two hours, and if the battery is even slightly less than fully-charged, the device would stop working before the movie ended.

Actually, can we take a moment to talk about the whole flying on a plane with VR goggles thing? On the one hand, it seems like a great idea. Isolate from the noise and bustle of the flying experience and retreat into your own private Idaho (or any other location that makes you calm). Float a movie screen out in front, and zone out to the dulcet tones of the guy from Chuck yelling “Shazam!”

Also: These are the travel essentials you need, according to tech and travel experts

But just how wise is it to isolate yourself when in public? All situational awareness goes out the window. You’re effectively a blind target, because you can’t see the surrounding world while wearing a $3,500 crown on your head. That’s bound to be tempting to someone with nefarious intentions.

No, if you’re going to lock yourself inside a fantasy world of pure immersion, do it in the safety of your home and office.

Apple did mention that Apple Arcade apps will run in the Vision Pro. Gaming is an obvious use for VR, but Apple quite wisely didn’t make gaming the focus of this product release. It’s hard to justify that kind of price (and that kind of neck pain), just to spend two hours fighting dragons in Skyrim.

Also: Game console showdown: PS5, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and more

No, beyond the very well-off consumer, most end users will sit this product out. But as the price comes down, that will change.

Apple’s product introduction cadence

Apple has long been known to introduce new models every year. For iPhones, it’s often a year of big showy changes followed by a year of internal performance changes. Because Apple does new product introductions yearly (except, for a while, for Macs), it’s likely to be the case that Apple will introduce new Apple Vision products every year.

Remember, the original iPhone was a far cry, not only from what we have now, but from the iPhone 4, which was truly the first mainstream iPhone. The first Apple Watch was super-limited, but by the time the Watch Series 4 came out, health sensors made the Watch a more viable fitness tool. So, too, we can expect a similar cadence of introductions from the Vision line.

Also: The best Apple Watches: Ultra, Series 8, and SE models compared

The Vision Pro will ship in 2024. In 2025, a lighter version with greater battery life will be introduced, probably at the same price. By 2026, expect Apple to introduce a Vision device (without the Pro), possibly made with less costly materials, and priced at roughly $2,000. In 2027, we’ll see higher-performance versions of both the Vision and Vision Pro. And in 2028, the real, mainstream device will probably land. This will be an under-$2,000 device with 4-to-8 hour battery life, a smaller overall headset, and light enough to wear for hours.

For now, though, the Vision Pro is mostly a concept prototype that developers can use to explore what might be possible, and that a few flush pro users and a very small select group of spendy consumers will buy just for the novelty of it all.

So, what about you? Are you going to buy this thing when it comes out? Let us know in the comments below.

Also: Inside VisionOS: 17 things developers need to know right now





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