Don’t Judge Apple’s Vision Pro Headset Too Quickly
What Apple’s own history and the Meta Quest 2 can teach us about the new “spatial computer.”
The Metaverse was a term popularized during the pandemic when Facebook changed its name to Meta. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and current CEO of Meta, explained the change was a reflection of his long-term strategy for the company, which involved building technology to create virtual social worlds where people can connect with each other.
More than a year and a half since that name change, Apple announced its new $3,499 Apple Vision Pro spatial computer. Not once did they utter the word “Metaverse” or even “Virtual Reality” (VR) during the keynote announcing the device.
Apple’s pitch is radically different from what Meta and other companies have done in this space. Apple’s headset is a mixed reality headset, but it prioritizes Augmented Reality (AR) first, VR second. It’s a device you look through. It adds digital layers onto what you see in your existing environment rather than drop you into a virtual game with a sword to cut some dragon’s head off.
It also isn’t just a headset, it’s a “spatial computer”. While some may roll their eyes at Apple’s terminology, there is some logic to it. Apple stuck an entire M2 chip into the Vision Pro. This is exactly the same chip that runs many of Apple’s latest computers. They’ve also paired the M2 chip with an entirely brand new R1 chip. Apple designed the R1 for realtime sensor processing to virtually eliminate any lag with what you see in the headset piped in from your actual environment. This in theory, should reduce motion sickness.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, laid out four categories that this device will revolutionize for users: Communication, Collaboration, Work, and Entertainment. Unfortunately, what the company ended up showing in its keynote were mostly tasks you can already do today on your Mac, iPhone, or Apple TV.
You can have multiple app windows in your space, like you can do with split screen on a Mac or multiple displays.
You can collaborate on a Facetime call with co-workers to work on a presentation.
You can watch movies and TV shows in spatial audio on a giant virtual screen.
The few truly new unique capabilities with this spatial computer involve its integrated 3D camera that you can use to capture 3D video and photos. You can then view the content you take on the Apple Vision Pro and it’ll look like you’re right there back in that memory.
Another unique capability related to 3D is that you can watch 3D movies like “Avatar: The Way of Water” with spatial audio on a big virtual IMAX screen.
One other notable thing about Apple’s announcement is what was missing from a typical headset marketing demo: gaming and fitness. The only gaming experience mentioned was playing games on a virtual TV screen with a controller, but this is also something you can just do today on your TV.
Because so many of the core experiences Apple demoed are ones that you can enjoy now on their other products, I think many may be inclined to initially pan this headset as an overpriced piece of hardware that doesn’t provide enough use cases to justify its existence.
I’d caution against this viewpoint for a few reasons. First, the Meta Quest 2. When you first put on that headset, the experience is transformative. It’s like putting yourself in a video game. For example, a game like “Vader Immortal” from Disney, which I talked about in my review, puts you in the center of a narrative.
You can see exactly how massively tall Darth Vader is and experience how much fun it is to wield a lightsaber. It is the most immersive gaming and storytelling experience I’ve had. If Apple’s superior screens and hardware could make the experience look much more real, I imagine that will be an incredibly compelling use case.
If you don’t want to wait till January 2024 to spend $3,499 on the Apple Vision Pro, you can pick up a $299 Meta Quest 2 today to try out VR experiences.
The second reason I wouldn’t bet against Apple is their history. They’re very good at being a fast follower, never being the first to a given market, but bringing out a refined version of a tech product that leapfrogs the competition. This appears to be what they have done again with the Apple Vision Pro.
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Still, don’t expect it to be an overnight success. The more recent Apple products like the Apple Watch and iPad took several years to become a true success. People had to find more unique uses for those devices.
The same thing will need to happen for Apple Vision Pro and spatial computing. What compelling use cases can it really do well compared to Apple’s existing products? How will they overcome the left-in-a-drawer phenomenon all too familiar to Meta, where the novelty of the headset wears off and they end up off in a drawer.
If mixed reality headsets are going to be the first step in the eventual goal of smart glasses you can wear around all day, Apple Vision Pro might be the first real step towards that vision. The question now is whether developers will go along for the ride. If history is any guide, they will.