Apple Vision Pro – The Illusion of Innovation
The announcement of the Apple Vision Pro has already sparked a massive amount of debate, filled with contrasting opinions. From excitement to doubt, praise, and outrage, I couldn’t resist throwing my hat in the ring. To be clear, I have not been able to try the headset out, nor do I have any more information than what was shared in the announcement. Unfortunately, it’s a far cry from what I had dreamed was possible, and it’s hard not to focus on what I feel could have been done compared to what we seem to be getting. Personally, I have a deep-seated fascination with the ‘Tony Stark’ vision: a world where I summon virtual screens with a mere glance, manipulate digital models in real time, and enjoy the company of a digital assistant who helps me out with a healthy dose of sarcasm. This headset… isn’t that. Does it get us closer to that reality? Well…
In the dense and rapidly evolving world of technological innovation, the Apple Vision Pro is Apple’s gambit to significantly disrupt how we perceive and interact with the world around us. What separates the Vision Pro from its contemporaries is Apple’s strong focus on a demographic often overlooked by VR/AR manufacturers: the casual tech consumer. This is a formidable challenge, given the notoriously narrow user base for Virtual Reality (VR) devices. If anyone can bring tech to the masses, it’s Apple.
The first thing to discuss about the Vision Pro is the immediately impressive tech specs. The Vision Pro utilizes two chips, the M2 chip - Apple’s most powerful processor to date, which will handle most of the computing tasks - and the R1 chip, which will handle all camera and sensor data loads. With 23 Million pixels and micro-OLED screens, each eye is treated to a resolution greater than 4K. Compared to other popular headsets on the market, this is impressive on paper. The upcoming Oculus 3 uses a Snapdragon XR 2 chip and standard 4k image output. The Magic Leap 2 uses an AMD 7nm Quad chip and showcases a resolution of 1440p, which, to be clear, is still excellent image quality in its own right.
However, this comparison is made mildly redundant due to one inescapable fact - the price of each headset. The Oculus 3 will run you about $500 (depending on the version), a great bang for your buck and ultimately impossible to compare to a headset thousands of dollars more expensive. The Magic Leap 2 is much closer in price to Apple’s new product, coming in at a base of $3,299, leaving us with the Vision Pro, a device that will cost a staggering $3,499. For that price point, the Vision Pro having suitable specs isn’t a bonus but an expectation. Which brings us to the million-dollar question (or at least the 3.5K one): How does Apple plan to distinguish itself?
Looking at what’s on offer, we know the Vision Pro comes with augmented reality capabilities, 3D video capture, a complete pass-through mode to see the world around you, and even the ability for onlookers to see the wearer’s eyes. Some features are legitimately novel, particularly having “eye contact” availability. The absence of a traditional controller or remote, replaced entirely with eye tracking and hand controls, further emphasizes the company’s commitment to shaping an easy-to-access, casual, and immersive experience. There is no fuss with controllers or need to explain how to use them: look at what you want to click and pinch your fingers.
But the question remains: is targeting a casual audience enough to shape AR into an everyday, mainstream technology?
With the eye-watering entry fee of $3,499, the Apple Vision Pro is far from an impulse buy. In a clever attempt to mitigate sticker shock, Apple framed the headset as a high-end investment akin to a home theater system or premium PC. The company strategically positioned the device as a standalone tool and a comprehensive solution for work, communication, and entertainment. But why would the average consumer make such an investment when most of the use cases presented can be accomplished currently without the device? There’s the rub.
This is where the Apple Vision Pro’s 2D bias becomes evident: despite the immersion and ‘cool’ factor, on a fundamental level, it essentially transfers traditional 2D experiences into a different medium. The demonstration left me wondering why I might need this device, from texting to movie watching, artwork creation, and Facetime. I couldn’t help but sit there and think… “I can already do all of this.” While they showed a few unique interaction methods, most of the interfaces were the standard 2D experiences we’re used to currently using, overlaid onto the wearer’s environment using AR tech. Is the novelty of experiencing these tasks in AR compelling enough to the masses to justify the expense?
Arguably more damning is the inescapable fact that each of these experiences is shown to be a solo experience. If I throw a movie on my TV or Facetime my family on my phone, my partner can walk into the room and join me to watch the film or say hi to my parents. Once the headset is on, however, cool the experience may be, I’m in an isolated digital bubble. Watching my favorite shows on a giant screen immersed in a mountain setting seems interesting in theory. Still, my partner will be left sitting on the couch next to me in practice, unable to participate. To my knowledge, Apple didn’t showcase a single multi-user experience during the announcement, leaving me with a dystopian sense of loneliness when considering putting on the Vision Pro.
Ok, though, I hear you, “Max, this is wildly negative, is there ANYTHING about this headset you like?” Believe it or not, there’s plenty. The most significant appeal to me is somewhat apparent, as it’s the backbone of Apple’s success over the years—an extremely approachable user interface coupled with full integration of the Apple ecosystem. As a tech enthusiast, buying a new device can come with some hassle; I had to dig up a long-dead Facebook password when I originally got my Oculus Quest and learn a new interface, storefront, UI, etc. Apple is an expert at promising seamless integration with minimal mental mess. The moment I put the headset on, my texts will be as accessible as they are on my phone, I can call friends without creating new contacts, and I fully intuit how to navigate their system. Coupled with the portability factor baked into the Vision Pro’s design, I’m daydreaming about how it would impact future flights or simply being able to continue working on multiple screens while walking my dog.
The balancing act Apple is attempting is tricky; eye-tracking and hand gesture controls are fun and intuitive to use. However, the tech is nothing new and is already fully implemented in several other headsets that cost a fraction of the price. When boiled down, Apple is taking a clear approach to marketing what they believe separates this headset from the pack: The Apple brand and the relentless pursuit of a casual business audience, as opposed to a gaming and tech enthusiast-focused crowd. But how incentivized will someone like my dad be to drop $3,499 to look at his texts projected on the table in front of him instead of on his phone? I genuinely don’t know.
Their timing with the announcement and release also feels misaligned to me. Instead of a rapid retail release following the grand reveal, we have at least half a year to wait, speculate, scrutinize, and become exposed to competitors. Coupled with the current economic downturn, a narrative is beginning to form, at least in my little millennial Twitter-sphere. “What kind of person would spend thousands to buy a glorified iPhone?” Current reception to the headset suggests public perception of the wearer will be viewed not as trendy but as elite, someone with money to spare and their head in the clouds. This notion can and likely will change. After all, people ruthlessly made fun of the AirPods when they were first released, roasting the ‘white ear antennas’ and the visuals of someone looking like they’re talking to themselves. Now, everyone has them.
At the risk of stating the extremely obvious: this is a first-gen product that feels first-gen, something we’ve grown a bit unaccustomed to regarding Apple. I question whether this exact headset is going to take off… yet. But I do honestly believe that Gen 2 will do better, and by Gen 3, I think there’s a real possibility that headsets like the Vision Pro will be commonplace. Only time will tell. Will Apple find exciting ways to utilize AR and 3D experiences to their full potential, breaking free from traditional 2D experiences? Will perception change, with more and more people wanting a piece of the sweet Apple pie? Will I finally feel like Tony Stark and share that experience with my friends and loved ones instead of being isolated in my little bubble? I can say with certainty I’m glad Apple is trying, and I’m incredibly excited to find out.