The Apple Vision Pro Is A Step, Not A Leap, Toward Our VR/AR Future

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The Apple Vision Pro Is A Step, Not A Leap, Toward Our VR/AR Future

Going back to the days of Tron and Johnny Mnemonic, all the way up to Ready Player One and Minority Report (we’re seeing a theme with Steven Spielberg here), science fiction has been teasing us with the concept of full-on virtual reality — a concept that just won’t quite turn into science fact yet.

Much like the early internet’s evolution from dial-up to broadband, and the streaming industry’s growth from Netflix to everyone else and Netflix, the virtual reality market is still pretty much in its infancy. But we’re right along for the ride, watching and waiting for it to grow up. Early adopters already have a few options, most notably Meta’s burgeoning Quest platform and (if you’re more into the gaming side) products like Sony’s PlayStation VR, but virtual reality is still the realm of heavy headsets, short-lived batteries and a general lack of compelling content.

The hope is that Apple might be able to change that.

The tech giant has been working on a virtual reality product for the better part of a decade, biding its time and reportedly churning through billions in R&D costs dating back to a development cycle that kicked off around 2015. If any company could potentially figure it out, it’d probably be Apple. The company has effectively created new markets a few times already, with lines like the iPod, iPhone and Apple Watch, and virtual reality remains the untapped frontier everyone is looking toward.

We finally got a look at Apple’s long-awaited entry into the virtual reality space this year: Apple Vision Pro, set to retail for an eye-popping $3,499. The glass and aluminum headset looks like something more akin to Ready Player One’s sci-fi kit than the more plastic-y feel of a standard Quest (though it should be noted Meta also has a sleeker, more expensive model that’s still thousands of dollars cheaper than the Vision Pro).

As the price tag makes clear, Apple spared no expense here, developing a product that can bounce from augmented reality to virtual reality relatively seamlessly (at least more seamlessly than any other option on the market), and features some of the most cutting-edge graphic processors, screens and hardware to make it all work smoothly. It’s early, but Apple is also promising to leverage its considerable software base from across the Mac and iOS ecosystems to ensure there are plenty of things to do on the Vision Pro, though that all obviously remains to be seen, as the device doesn’t actually ship until early 2024.

Apple debuted the headset with a demo at its developers’ conference, WWDC, in June, and the consensus was generally pretty great from the assembled tech press. When compared to other headsets on the market, it seems to be a step above and features some of the most useful and generally cool augmented reality features not seen on pretty much any other headset. But therein lies the rub — it might be a step above every other headset, but it’s still not beyond them. It should also be noted, Apple bills the product more as an augmented reality device than full-on virtual reality (even going back to 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook has said augmented reality holds more potential in his opinion), but it does both.

Augmented reality is arguably the most interesting functionality, allowing a user to overlay information (almost like a virtual graphical user interface) on top of the real world, while seeing it all meld and come together through the headset. Think Tom Cruise in Minority Report, accessing virtual files and data and flicking it away with his hand. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s definitely the path Apple is trying to walk here.

So is the Apple Vision Pro the future? Not really, at least not yet, though we can start gleaning what it might look like down the line. The tech and interface are a step forward in usability, but anything that requires hefty ski goggles bundled to a battery pack (or featuring a heavy rechargeable battery in the headset itself) is simply never going to prove practical. The appeal is fun on paper, but after an hour of watching a movie or enjoying a virtual concert with a headset weighing down on your neck? The novelty quickly starts to wear off.

Both Meta and Apple are pitching the high end of these products more toward industry and work audiences, with the promise of more seamless and engaging virtual meetings and the ability to access data in new and creative ways. That promise is huge, but the execution still isn’t there, even for Apple. The Vision Pro feels like the product Apple has to make before it can make the product it really wants to make. The next thing that makes it all work and doesn’t look like you just wandered off the set of a Spielberg movie with a battery pack in your pocket.

Cook himself acknowledged the inherent challenge back in 2017, noting the research and hardware simply hadn’t gone far enough, which is why Apple hadn’t released a virtual or augmented reality device at that point (and would go on to wait another seven years before doing so).

“The technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way,” he told The Independent. “The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face -– there [are] huge challenges with that. The field of view, the quality of the display itself — it’s not there yet.”

Cook knew the uphill climb it would be back in 2017, and though the Vision Pro is incredibly cool, it seems Apple still has a bit more mountain left to climb. But give it another 10 years or so? Give Apple time to learn from the Vision Pro and figure out how to condense all this tech into something more akin to a stylish pair of Ray-Bans. That’s when we’ll cue up the Futurama “Shut Up And Take My Money” meme.

In the meantime? If you have close to $4,000 to burn, the Vision Pro could be a lot of fun to play with next year. But it’s not going to change the world. Not yet.

 

Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.

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