After you slide on the knitted headband and turn a small dial to achieve a snug fit, the view of the real world through Apple’s Vision Pro headset is nearly seamless. Almost. You don’t see the world through a clear lens, but rather a real-time video recreation of it streamed from external cameras to a pair of superior 4K displays.
Colors were crisp, lag non-existent, and the resolution high enough to be free of the screen door effect that plagues other virtual or mixed reality headsets. But there’s just enough of a gap between experience and real life to land in a strange valley. That’s why a hands-on test drive of Vision Pro during Apple’s WWDC event last week reminded me of the 1995 noir cyberpunk cult movie strange days. In film, 3D recordings of real events can be replayed and relived through wearable technology, and Vision Pro’s slight flattening of reality reminded me of those virtual memories.
Stranger was still the experience of watching new 3D video clips recorded through the Vision Pro and playing to me like a high-tech pop-up greeting card. I predict this will be a standout feature of the device, which will cost $3,500 and be available in early 2024.
More meta than meta
Almost everything else about the Vision Pro was an improvement over or the evolution of features already found on devices like the Meta Quest, HoloLens, Or PSVR. For example, the Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest began pushing virtual desktop environments with floating video chats and wall-sized spreadsheets when parent company Meta rebranded itself as a pioneer of the metaverse. And AR devices like HoloLens and Magic Leap already provide an ingrained view of the real world, neatly layering augmented content.
Vision Pro plays with both of these concepts, allowing you to pin apps, videos, and web browser windows all around you. It improves on what came before by selectively letting elements of reality intrude – like a real-world visitor visibly bleeding through your virtual background just by proximity.
Virtual visitors can also interfere with your mixed reality experience. What you or I might call virtual avatars for FaceTime calls were, in AppleSpeak, dubbed “People.” They were the most impressive and disturbing part of the experience.
If I didn’t know the Persona I was talking to, a real-time 3D recreation of a real person’s face, I might have been tricked into thinking I was seeing a live video feed. The 3D face scans, which Apple says you’ll be able to create from scratch using the headset’s external depth-sensing cameras, are extremely naturalistic, especially at first glance. Could you pretend to be a loved one? No, at least not yet. But if this is the Day One demo, we’re only a few iterations away from that. I’m sure Apple will rely on device eye-scan identification for security to lock down fake face phishing, but it will be an ongoing game of cat and mouse to prevent it.
Fingers in the nose
Avoiding handheld controllers, the Vision Pro relies almost entirely on simple gesture controls. Many of the pinch and swipe motions resemble those used by the Quest, but there’s one major difference. On the quest, trying to use gesture controls with precision feels like playing a carnival game – a constant eye and serious focus are required. Eeven then, it can be random. The quest is not transparent enough to be used full time, so you have to keep its portable controllers nearby.
Vision Pro’s simple hand gestures, mostly pinch-to-type and side-to-side swiping, worked every time. The hand and finger movements required are subtle, can be activated from your knees, and are complemented by eye tracking to select options from a menu. That’s way beyond what the Quest’s gesture controls are capable of, as it should be for a device that costs seven times as much.
The name of the game
During its WWDC keynote and subsequent hands-on demo sessions, Apple avoided even mentioning buzzwords. like virtual reality or AI. Instead, the Vision Pro is described as a “spatial computing device » which uses machine learning.
Now, this isn’t my first rodeo with a VR headset. I experienced modern virtual reality for the first time back in 2012 when I tried out a very early Oculus Rift prototype. I recognize a VR headset when I see one, and the Vision Pro is a very chic, very nice and very expensive VR headset.
In a way, VR headset design has almost come full circle since that 2012 demo. The new Vision Pro has been accurately described as looking like a pair of high-tech ski goggles. The original Rift prototype I saw was literally built into a pair of real ski goggles with a screen sunk in and the outside covered in black tape.
That original Rift was bulky and uncomfortable, and its lack of motion sickness-mitigating tech meant my stomach was in knots for the rest of the day after using it. Vision Pro looks a million times more advanced, showing how VR hardware and software have come a long way in a relatively short 10 years. Despite its light weight and comfort features, I remembered I was wearing the Vision Pro during my hands-on demo time, but my brain quickly adapted to be within a few degrees of the real thing.
The idea of working in a virtual office surrounded by giant floating application windows doesn’t necessarily excite me, and the isolation issues inherent in any portable headset are amplified by the high price tag – it’s hard to imagine a household buying multiple headsets, or even one, despite all the home entertainment features. But the slightly voyeuristic thrill of creating and playing 3D music videos – which strange days effect – sets the Vision Pro experience apart from other headsets I’ve tried and makes it the standard by which future virtual, augmented, or spatial experiences will be judged.
Learn more: Here’s what early testers are saying about Apple’s Vision Pro headphones
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