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A lot of new technology is misunderstood at first, especially when it is something groundbreaking. Think of Facebook, which started as a social media network and evolved into an online marketplace, a community and dating platform, and more. Or the iPhone, a keyless phone that eventually redefined the smartphone. Would we also misjudge the Apple Vision Pro, Apple’s answer to the VR headset?

We probably all know Frans Bromet’s famous 1997 video in which he asks Dutch people if they would use a mobile phone. It is almost laughable how dismissive they respond. And that while, 26 years later, the average Dutchman is almost fused to his mobile phone. Apple played an important role in that turnaround by launching the first iPhone in 2007. Apple was certainly not the first company to launch a smartphone, but it did set a new standard in terms of user experience. At the time, the smartphone market was still dominated by companies like BlackBerry, Nokia and Palm, all of which sold popular phones with physical keyboards and styluses. Thanks to Apple, the smartphone turned into a completely different device with a large display, intuitive touch controls and an online shop with countless apps. Since then, Apple did introduce new product categories, think iPad, Apple TV and Apple Watch, but nothing was as innovative as the iPhone. Would the Apple Vision Pro change that?

Bron: Apple
Bron: Apple

Apple’s Vision Pro headset for Spatial Computing

Not AR and VR but Spatial Computing
On 5 June 2023, Tim Cook introduced the Apple the Vision Pro at WWDC 2023. Traditionally at the end of his keynote with the quote “One More Thing” so famously uttered by Steve Jobs. In fact, this device is a mixed-reality headset, or a combination of augmented and virtual reality, of which there have been several other headsets on the market for years. But, as with the iPhone, Apple also wants to set a new standard in terms of user experience with this device. Also by tradition, Apple does not name the technology with the terms AR, VR or mixed reality, but with the brand’s own term Spatial Computing. Whether the Vision Pro will become as popular and groundbreaking a new product category as the iPhone remains to be seen at least until Q1 2024. Only then will the headset be officially on sale. Until then, we have to make do with the experiences of a select group of people who were allowed to test the device. And they don’t lie.

Headset as an extension of yourself
Almost everyone who has already had the opportunity to try out the Vision Pro agrees that the user experience is much better and more impressive than expected. For instance, they say that while in use, the headset feels like an ‘extension of yourself’. This is partly due to the very low ‘latency’, or image delay, which often made users of first-generation VR headsets queasy. Furthermore, control through hand movements and eye-tracking seems to be particularly intuitive and even akin to ‘mind control’. In addition, Apple’s virtual environment seamlessly integrates with the physical environment you are in. For example, you can add man-sized screens or other virtual objects to your living room or office. And when you are in a fully virtual environment, it automatically fades into the background the moment someone walks in front of you. In the process, a display at the front of the headset shows a virtual version of your eyes, so bystanders know you are in ‘their reality’. So without a doubt, the Vision Pro offers a very unique experience.

Current VR successes in perspective
Already, the Vision Pro stands alone, compared to popular VR/AR headsets like the Meta Quest, HTC Vive and Playstation VR. Technologically, then, it is a very high-end product in which no expense has been spared. This is in contrast to today’s competitors, who actually want to make their products as affordable and accessible as possible. This is also reflected in the price of the Vision Pro: a whopping $3,500! That is many times more expensive than the rest and thus not exactly accessible to the average consumer. But perhaps price is not the most important thing at the moment. As is the fact that we are not yet making massive and frequent use of this kind of headset at the moment. Virtual reality is still an emerging technology. The headsets are selling more and more, though, with a new sales record of some 19.14 million by 2022. However, US research shows that most headsets are only used a few times a month. Is that due to the focus on gaming? Or to Facebook/Meta’s aggressive campaign to make its virtual world, the Metaverse, a success? Or could it be due to the limited quality and ease of use after all?

Start of a new era?
The Vision Pro may seem like a reaction by Apple to keep up with VR/AR competition. Yet it appears to have been on the company’s agenda for many years. Even Steve Jobs briefly shared his vision for virtual reality back in 2005. The technology is now apparently at the level where Jobs’ and Apple’s vision can be realised: a mixed reality headset that offers the same quality as a 50-inch 4K display and can also replace all your digital devices in a virtual environment.
So it is quite possible that the launch of the Vision Pro is the beginning of a new era. Apple has again cleverly waited for developments, looked closely at the competition, and then come up with a ‘revolutionary’ Apple product. And what’s more, this is only the first demo version. From 2024, we will see if the Vision Pro can really live up to those expectations. It will anyway give a big boost to the more affordable mixed reality products from companies like Meta, HTC and Sony, and thus the VR market as a whole.
And after that, it will have to be seen whether we will all be using mixed-reality headsets or glasses on a daily basis in 25 years’ time. Will we then also watch smiling videos of people from 2023 shouting that virtual reality will never be a success? And will our future then look like that of dystopian films like Minority Report and Ready Player One, or rather like the harmonious “age of Spatial Computing” proposed by Apple?