Apple’s AR initiative has been a long time coming. We first caught wind of Apple being interested in this space when the iPhone 8 Plus featured some new AR capabilities courtesy of the company’s new ARKit. It seemed unlikely even back then that Apple’s vision for AR would be limited to just the iPhone and that the company had something bigger cooking in the background.
Fast forward six years and the company just announced the Apple Vision Pro. While Apple would like you to refer to it as a “spatial computer”, in the end, what it really is is a very sophisticated AR headset. The Vision Pro is also Apple’s first major product category since the HomePod launch back in 2017. But the Vision Pro is not meant to be just another accessory or side hustle. This is bigger than the HomePods and the AirPods, and even the Apple Watch. No, for Apple, the Vision Pro is its fourth major product after the iPhone, the iPad, and the Mac.
The company dedicated a good chunk of its WWDC 2023 keynote to the product. Many things were discussed and I will get to them eventually but there were two things that stuck out to me the most.
First, the reiteration of the idea that the Vision Pro is a standalone product, not an accessory. Throughout the keynote, you almost never see the Vision Pro being used alongside an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. This is not like the Apple Watch which relies on the iPhone to work. Nor is it like a VR headset that needs to be plugged into a PC or a console. The Vision Pro can exist and operate independently of its own.
Aside from not requiring other devices to function, the Vision Pro was almost positioned as a replacement for them. You can call people from it, you can access apps, you can watch movies and play games, and you can do your work. Make no mistake, this is no companion device designed to augment your phone, tablet, or computer. It’s designed to replace them eventually.
But it’s not easy to do that if it’s just something you put on once in a while. This is why everyone just seemed to have the headset on at all times, which is the other thing I noticed. In this alternate universe that Apple demoed on stage, people just walk around with the Vision Pro on them at all times, even when not actively using it. Apple never actually showed people using them outdoors aside from on planes and for taking 3D pictures and videos, so the assumption there is that you may still need to use your iPhone for the time being, at least until Apple makes a more compact version of the Vision Pro that you never take off.
I will get back to the downsides of this but first let’s take a look at some of the things Apple demonstrated, starting with the good stuff. To me, easily the best aspect of using this headset, sorry, spatial computer is for watching movies. The concept of having a screen that can completely fill your vision along with 3D audio seems incredible.
I also love the fact that it makes 3D movies possible again at home; as one of the few people who likes well implemented 3D over 2D, this did get me quite excited. Since the 3D here is being delivered using two displays instead of a single display and brightness reducing parallax 3D glasses, the experience would be much, much better.
It also seems more comfortable than watching on a TV, since you are no longer looking at a fixed point and can turn and orient your head in any direction to reduce fatigue and also lie down if you want while the video remains centered in your vision.
Gaming seems equally fun. Admittedly, there aren’t a ton of games right now that are designed to run on Apple Silicon, and VR headsets for platforms like the PlayStation or PC haven’t exactly taken off in a big way as content remains scarce. Still, if Apple puts its might behind it, we may see some big-name developers port popular titles to the Vision Pro. There’s native support for Unity (and there are a bunch of Unity games out there) and the arrival of popular titles like Death Stranding for Apple Silicon gives hope of a more serious gaming conversation in which Apple is involved. Maybe, the Vision Pro can finally be the gaming platform that the Mac never could.
I also see huge applications for the Vision Pro in fields such as education, medicine, and engineering. These are fields that can greatly benefit from a real-time 3D environment where the user can directly manipulate objects in front of them rather than on a computer or tablet screen. Think Tony Stark using Jarvis to work on his new Iron Man suit and you see what I’m thinking of. There may be no Jarvis here and Siri is the farthest thing from it but you can’t deny it won’t be cool to work on large 3D models or study them like they were physical objects.
But not everything looked as impressive. Apple also showed a lot of demos of people just using regular 2D desktop apps for work. To me, this did not seem any more intuitive, enjoyable or magical, even, to use than on just regular monitors plugged into a regular PC. Just because you put a Microsoft Excel document in a 3D space, doesn’t exactly make it less of a hassle to use. I’d much rather just use my computer than put on a headset for it. Unless, again, the assumption here is that you have the headset on anyway (because of course you do) so why not just use it for everything, including boring office work?
But where the presentation truly went off the rails for me was Apple going down the uncanny valley territory and doing some truly goofy things. There were parts of this presentation that felt more like an SNL parody skit but were completely real and delivered with a genuinely straight face.
For example, creating a fake 3D render of your face and then showing it to people looking at you is beyond creepy, as is using it for video calls because otherwise, they can’t actually see you. Apple used this in many instances, like while showing someone talking to another person in front of her, and most depressingly, while a father was playing with his children.
There was even a demonstration of the 3D capture feature, where you can use the cameras on the Vision Pro to capture photos and videos in 3D so you can relive them later.
What felt incredibly out of touch for me is that in all these instances the wearer of the Vision Pro is interacting with others who aren’t wearing the headset. Apple tried really hard to make this interaction seem normal, except in each case it felt like the wearer was comatose or lost in some other world while the people around them tried desperately to feel some kind of connection to this person. The 3D video of a child’s birthday party seemed cool until you realize the father was in a corner recording this through his headset while all his family could see was a fake, 3D-rendered version of half of his face.
One could argue that this isn’t too far off from the current reality of people being glued to their phones. But I thought we all agreed that was a bad thing. This includes Apple, who introduced Screen Time not too long ago so that both you and your children can limit the amount of time you spend on your phones and, I don’t know, maybe go outside and touch some grass. But not only is the Vision Pro more intimate and harder to put down than a phone, the company also actively encouraged walking around wearing it all day and never taking it off.
This brings me back to my previous observation that the Vision Pro is just designed to be worn all the time. You do your calls through it, you watch your movies, play your games, and do your work. You also apparently just talk creepily through it with your family or take pictures of them while your children grow up never seeing half of your face. And then maybe when they are old enough they too can hide half of their face from the world.
That may seem a bit dramatic but it did strike me as odd that Apple seemed somewhat oblivious to it. The company seemingly went the AR route over VR so the wearer was still in touch with their surroundings and went as far as having a screen on the outside so others can see a facsimile of your face. But these things inherently detach you from your surroundings and are probably the last thing people need when we are already so addicted to the things we currently have.
A part of me does, however, want to see where this goes. You can find similarities in other products but we have never had anything quite like this before. There is obviously a huge potential for making apps that take advantage of the platform. Disney CEO Bob Iger was practically salivating on stage as he thought of various ways to take your money. I’m sure somewhere in Disney HQ they are having this exact conversation from Ready Player One. Can’t wait to experience getting pop-up ads in 3D.
And let’s not even get started on what the adult entertainment industry is going to do with this. Apple would never bring it up but I’m sure they know as well as anyone else that once the porn industry approves of your product it becomes an overnight success.
That finally brings us to the price. For all the hardware inside it, much of which is very new and custom designed for this one specific product, the pricing is perfectly fair. Also, Apple clearly thinks it can replace your phone, tablet, and PC so it’s only fair it costs as much as all three combined. I’m honestly surprised it costs only $3499.
All snark aside, I do think on a technological level, this is a very cool product. But I also worry about the social implications of using this in its intended manner and what it will do to a society that is already getting increasingly detached from one another physically. I hope I don’t get to see the day when people in the same house choose to talk to each other through their Apple Vision Pro instead of face-to-face.