We’re still reeling a bit from today’s announcement of Vision Pro, Apple’s biggest new platform/hardware product rollout in years. The enormity of the entirely new computing interface the company is trying to sell here is matched only by the augmented reality headset’s significant $3,499 starting price.
Whether or not Apple’s gambit here can succeed in a headset-curious but still largely headset-skeptical market will depend in large part on the quality of the “immersive” experience Apple can deliver, and the answers to questions that can only be answered by actually putting this thing on our heads. Before we get that eyes- and hands-on time, though, here are some immediate thoughts on how to position Vision Pro in the market and in your mind.
Don’t judge Vision Pro by the standards of VR
Comparing the Vision Pro to the current state of the art in virtual reality makes its value proposition seems like a real uphill climb for Apple. After all, for the same price as just one Vision Pro you could buy three-and-a-half Quest Pro headsets (after its recent price drop to $999) or a full seven of Meta’s upcoming Quest 3 headsets (one for every day of the week).
But while the Vision Pro looks a bit like existing VR headsets, this is first and foremost an augmented reality device (i.e. one that projects images on top of your natural view of the “real world”). That puts it in the same category as Microsoft’s Hololens 2, which launched for developers at $3,500 in 2019, or the Magic Leap 2, which launched for $3,299 last year.
That difference matters for more than price competitiveness reasons. The use cases for a true augmented reality device go way beyond those for a dedicated virtual reality device (which fully blocks your view of the real world).
To see how, note that the software market for VR headsets is currently dominated by games and other interactive experiences that usually have you stand in an all-encompassing virtual environment. Apple’s presentation today, by contrast, barely mentioned gaming. Instead, it mainly showed Vision Pro users lounging on their couch and flicking through apps or movies, or sitting at a keyboard and working on massive virtual displays (not to mention getting up to grab a drink from the fridge without taking the headset off, something that is tough in VR even with quality passthrough cameras).
Those Vision Pro users were shown using casual gestures to wander through an iOS style environment, rather than using the kinds of big motions that characterize interactions in VR games. Vision Pro doesn’t even come with handheld controllers, which could make it difficult to port existing VR games that rely on those controllers.
Whether Apple’s device can live up to the vision presented by this carefully crafted presentation is an open question. But the different focus highlights just how different this AR headset could be from previous VR headsets—if they can get it right.
That price point is probably not meant for you
At this point in the development of head-mounted displays, there are basically two semi-viable lanes you can take. The first is the ultra-low-end lane advocated by John Carmack shortly before he left Meta. This aims for a true “minimum viable product” device that takes out as many bells and whistles as possible to achieve a very low price and low weight.
The second is the ultra-high-end lane. This one aims for a device that embraces the state of the art in terms of displays, sensors, and materials to deliver an expensive, advanced product that attempts to prove to a still-skeptical public just how comfortable, engrossing, and revelatory a head-mounted computing device can be.
Apple very clearly chose one of these lanes. And while there are valid strategic reasons to do so, that choice does come with its share of marketing risks.
Apple’s rollout today positions the Vision Pro alongside Apple’s laptops, smartphones, tablets, and watches as the kind of mass consumer product that can sell tens of millions of units. But it’s extremely doubtful that there is a such a mass market for a product that costs so much more than almost every product in those other Apple product lines.
Sure, if you adjust for inflation, the Vision Pro only sits somewhere in the middle of Apple’s historic asking price range for Macintosh models. But most of the pricier offerings there date back to the ’80s and ’90s, where basic computing resources just cost more overall. These days, a computing device that costs $3,499 or more is targeted only at the highest-end pro users, like the Mac Pro Apple announced today.
Maybe Apple will be OK with the Vision Pro starting as a similarly niche product, but the effusive “one more thing” rollout for the new platform and product line today suggests their eventual vision goes farther. For that to happen, the price will have to come down, and quickly. As it stands, a $3,499 Vision Pro is a product mainly for developers chasing the bleeding edge, Apple die-hards who will buy anything the company puts out, and the small group of people for who can spend that kind of money without even thinking about it.
The “immersive” experience depends a lot on the optics
Apple spent a lot of today’s announcement showing videos featuring Vision Pro users gawking at massive, floating 100-foot-wide screens and inhabiting elaborate, all-encompassing 3D environments. But that kind of “room-filling” CGI trailer obscures the “magic window” effect you tend to get when using an AR headset.
There are two key factors limiting the immersion here. One is the “field of view” that describes how much of your vision the projected AR image actually takes up. For almost every existing AR headset, this represents a disappointingly small rectangle in the center of your eyes, meaning floating objects simply get abruptly cut off if they drift to far out of a central focal area. Apple hasn’t announced the field of view stats for the Vision Pro as far as we can tell, but having display panels “the size of a postage stamps” makes us skeptical that much peripheral vision will be covered, either above or to the sides.
The second key component is resolution, which needs to be extremely high for objects to look good on a display that sits just inches from your face. Apple promises a full 23 million pixels across its two translucent panels, which it says can deliver true 4K video or sharp text “from any angle.” But those promises may start to look a bit shakier when AR objects are placed more than a few feet away in your apparent view. A lot will depend on the hardware’s “three-element lens” optics and how many pixels per degree—rather than just pixels per inch—it can guarantee for objects being viewed across the room.
We don’t want to prejudge any of this before we get to try on the Vision Pro for ourselves, of course. But we expect that AR’s persistent “magic window” effect will mean the actual Vision Pro experience doesn’t end up quite all-encompassing as slick PR videos make it appear.
Don’t discount the “it looks dorky” factor
Remember Google Glass? If you do, you probably remember it for aesthetics that even Google Chairman Eric Schmidt once admitted were “weird” and “inappropriate” in many situations.
For a headset computing device to succeed outside of a niche, it has to be something a mass market is willing to wear for long periods when other people are around. And while Vision Pro definitely looks sleeker and less ostentatious than some previous head-mounted devices, we’re not sure it has fully surmounted that “dork factor” hump.
To scale that hump, Apple is relying heavily on the front-facing EyeSight display, which conveys your gaze to anyone nearby as “a critical indicator of connection and emotion.” While that looks like a decent attempt at a solution in Apple’s PR video, we can imagine a sort of “uncanny valley” effect emerging in person unless the fidelity and latency of that eye display is truly impeccable.
And even if it is, we’re still not sure EyeSight will be enough to convince people that they can be comfortable being seen in public wearing Apple’s somewhat bulky new ski mask (complete with an awkward wire hanging down to a battery in their pocket). The dream of a fully functional AR device that is no more distracting than a pair of eyeglasses is still a ways off.
This is just Version 1
After years of iteration, it’s hard for many consumer to remember all the limitations inherent in the first versions of blockbuster Apple products like the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch (or, going back a bit farther, the MacBook and iPod). Looking at all the key features missing from those early versions, you might be surprised that they ever caught on with a critical mass of consumers in the first place.
But this, to a large extent, is what Apple does. It launches a minimal, barely viable version of a new product category targeted at early adopters and Apple fans eager to see what the fuss is about. Then Apple iterates on that hardware, year after year, until the price comes down and the features go up enough to reach a truly enormous audience.
There are some differences with the Vision Pro, not least of which is the $3,499 price that may make even early adopters balk. Even with their “version 1” limitations, products like the iPhone and iPad were cheap enough that Apple’s audience of early adopters could take a flier on an intriguing new technology.
And as limited as the early version’s of Apple’s other major products were, most if not all of them were advances in familiar use cases and computer usage models with proven track market success. Convincing consumers to test out a completely unfamiliar new computer interface that you have to strap to your head might be a heavier lift.
Still, one doesn’t have top look too hard to find Apple products (like the Apple Watch or Home Pods) where the market at large seemed baffled by version 1, then flocked to future models once pricing and feature kinks were worked out. There’s a chance we’ll look back at the first Vision Pro with bemusement when a cheaper, better Vision Pro 4 is selling like hotcakes in a few years. For that to happen, though, Apple is going to have to be willing to plow a lot of money into what could be an expensive, niche product for quite a long time.