This is not an alternative to the Meta Quest. It’s a fresh approach to VR and AR technologies.
After years of waiting, Apple debuted its Vision Pro headset during a conference at WWDC 2023. And while it’s easy to make assumptions, Vision Pro defies almost everything that we “know” about VR or AR products. You won’t find the Metaverse here, and you won’t be isolated inside of a screen.
By this point, most people are familiar with virtual reality. A headset like the Meta Quest 2 can transport you to a variety of digital worlds, blocking out the reality that you actually inhabit.
But Apple’s Vision Pro headset is a bit different. It’s a mixed-reality headset, meaning that it adds a virtual layer to the real world. When using the Vision Pro, you can see all of your surroundings, which are piped in using a collection of high-resolution cameras. An iPad-like interface floats in front of you, and from there, you interact with apps and other tools, including (optionally) your Mac’s desktop.
These apps can respond to your environment—they cast shadows, and they reflect changes in ambient lighting through transparency effects and animations. Plus, you can place apps in your room. They aren’t stuck in front of your eyes. If you move an app to your fireplace, for example, it’ll stay there, almost like a real-world screen.
Apple describes Vision Pro as a “Spatial Computing” platform. The goal is to pretend that there isn’t a screen in front of your face. Instead, Vision Pro gives you the magical power to place virtual screens in the real world, which seem “real” and are much larger than the screens you may actually own.
Of course, a Stage Manager-like virtual desktop system can give you a more focused view if you want to deal with just one app at a time. And you can place several apps into a multi-monitor configuration, effectively simulating the computer monitors you might have at your desk.
And Vision Pro can accommodate immersive experiences. When you want to leave your real world, you can fire up one of Vision Pro’s many Environments, which are pre-made virtual worlds. During WWDC, Apple showed off a calm forest Environment, which is much more compelling than the virtual office spaces that Meta likes to reference.
I’m not going to go deep into the specs, at least, not in this article. But Apple’s concept of “Spatial Computing” comes with some requirements—a great display, and a series of high-resolution cameras. This stuff is expensive, which is why companies like Meta have barely made any progress on passthrough video. Apple is only able to deliver this experience because it’s willing to charge over $3,000 for the Vision Pro headset, although I should note that I haven’t tested Vision Pro, so I don’t know how well it actually performs.
One of the biggest problems facing VR is public perception. It’s hard to imagine how this technology will actually be useful outside of gaming. And Zuckerberg’s Metaverse concept only made things worse—nobody wants to spend eight hours a day in a virtual office that looks like a bad PlayStation game.
Obviously, productivity is an important aspect of Apple’s Vision Pro headset. But Apple is taking great pains to ease customers into this idea. It isn’t leaning on Meta’s concept of an “everything in VR” future. Plus, passthrough video is a defining feature of Vision Pro, and it gives productivity a more futuristic and welcoming sheen.
But productivity and gaming aren’t the selling points of Vision Pro. In fact, the way that Apple markets this device reminds me of the iPad. There’s a huge focus on entertainment, relaxation, connecting with family, and creating memories. It’s a very refreshing change of pace that we haven’t really seen in the world of augmented or virtual reality.
For example, if someone comes near you while you’re wearing the Vision Pro, your eyes will appear through the headset. They will know that you can see them. And, at times when you can’t see outside of the headset, your eyes will be obscured by a colorful cloud, indicating that you shouldn’t be surprised or bothered. (If someone chooses to walk up to you, they’ll appear inside of your headset, so you shouldn’t be too shocked.)
Additionally, Vision Pro can use its external cameras to create 3D photos or videos of your surroundings. You can record a child’s birthday party, for example, and relive it anytime with head tracking, 3D depth, and spatial audio. Other headsets touch on this feature with panoramic 3D photos, but Apple is making it an actual priority, which is very notable.
And the Vision Pro can serve as a personal movie theater with 3D audio. Again, this is something that other headsets touch on, but Apple’s take is a bit unique. Using passthrough video, you can place a virtual movie screen anywhere in your room, though you also have the option to expand the screen in a totally immersive Environment (such as a dark forest).
You can also sit in one of the Vision Pro’s many Environments and do nothing. Apple says that you can visit an Environment during a stressful work day, for example, or stay in one during a plane ride. It’s a simple idea, but it’s at the forefront of Apple’s marketing—a stark contrast from Meta’s obsession with Beat Saber and 3D virtual offices.
Long before WWDC 2023, we knew that the Vision Pro would cost a lot of money. Analysts like Mark Gurman suggest that Apple doesn’t see Vision Pro as a cash cow. Instead, this first-generation headset is intended for developers and enthusiasts. It will help to build the infrastructure and hype for a more affordable, more accessible Apple headset.
Vision Pro costs a whopping $3,500. Very few people own a gadget that costs this much money, and if I can be perfectly honest, the Vision Pro probably isn’t worth the price. It’s a first-generation product, it will be superseded by something cheaper, and developers still need to create specialty apps for visionOS (though the headset can run iPad apps and your Mac desktop).
Even if you’re interested in Vision Pro, I don’t suggest buying it. Just wait a few years or settle for something cheaper. Meta’s Quest 2 headset, which is just $300, and while it obviously falls short of the Vision Pro’s quality, it’s a great device that’s fun to play with.
Anyway, Vision Pro starts at $3,500 and launches in early 2024. I assume that this device will be backordered immediately after it launches, so if you’re really willing to buy it, keep an eye out for the launch date. For what it’s worth, Apple claims that customers will be able to try the headset at the Apple Store.