I’ve tried Apple’s Vision Pro and it’s incredible (but I also have doubts)
I’ve tried Apple’s Vision Pro and it’s incredible (but I also have doubts)
Note: This feature was first published on 6 June 2023.
Hours after the Vision Pro was announced, I had the chance to put it on and experience some of its capabilities and possibilities. Long story short, it’s genuinely incredible and has the potential to be something truly transformative.
Before I was allowed to put on the Vision Pro, I had to scan my ears to set up spatial audio, and my spectacles were measured so that they could find the right optical inserts for me. The latter is crucial because you don’t wear your glasses when you put on the Vision Pro.
@hwztech Heres a quick look at the just announced Apple Vision Pro! It’s surprisngly compact and looks super sleek. #hwz #hwzsg #apple #visionpro #applevisionpro #ar #vr #headset #visionos #wwdc23 #wwdc ♬ original sound - HardwareZone
The Vision Pro, as you might have probably seen from the photos and video here, is a hyper-futuristic-looking device. It’s also surprisingly compact. I don’t think it’s much larger than a typical scuba or ski goggles. Once you put it on, you adjust the straps to ensure a good fit. This is crucial because minor imperfections to the fit can lead to wonky images on the screen. It’s said to weigh less than 500g, which is roughly the weight of many high-end planar headphones. It certainly felt substantial – enough to let you know that it's there, but not so much as to cause discomfort.
One perhaps incongruous feature of the Vision Pro is its battery pack. Apple didn’t want all the weight to be concentrated in the headset and so opted to have a separate battery pack. To be fair, the battery pack is small – not much larger than an iPhone 14 Pro Max – but then it also doesn’t offer much battery life - just two hours. A USB-C port works as a passthrough port for wired use.
I was then guided through a series of demos to showcase the Vision Pro’s outstanding visual quality, its ease of use, and its various use cases.
The first that struck me was how good the display was. The Vision Pro uses two micro-OLED displays, each with over 4K pixels, and it’s very sharp. Photos, videos, and even text all looked crisp and vivid. However, I did notice some fringing from time to time at the edges of the display. I couldn’t tell if it was because I had adorned an early prototype or if something was going on with the optical inserts. Still, this is mostly an amazing-looking display.
Equally amazing was the passthrough feature that lets you see your surroundings. This is made possible by the array of cameras and sensors on the front of the Vision Pro that scans your surroundings. Apple wanted to replicate what your eyes see, and it gets pretty close. At one point, I needed to move the battery pack and I could reach for it and pick it up on my first attempt. Of course, if you wanted to nitpick, you could. It doesn’t have the fidelity of your own eyes and you can make out lost details when you examine objects closely. But even then, this passthrough feature is undoubtedly very impressive.
Apple says this is possible because the Vision Pro is powered by a combination of the M2 chip and a new R1 chip. The latter chip is dedicated to processing signals from the sensors, cameras, and mics, and it can stream new video to the viewer's eyes in just 12 milliseconds – which is roughly 1/8 the time it takes to blink. This low latency makes the video passthrough look and feel extremely real.
The ease with which you can control the Vision Pro is remarkable. Apple wanted users to only use their eyes, hands, and voice, and it seems they have largely succeeded. Very briefly, you use your eyes to look at menu items to navigate and pinch your hands to select. To scroll, you pinch and wave your hands from side to side or up and down. It is awkward to use? Of course, I have never navigated a computer using my eyes and hands before, but I soon got the hang of it.
Apple says the Vision Pro is a “spatial computer”, and one of the reasons why it’s calling it that is because of the way apps can be positioned in space. During the demo, I opened apps, resized them, and moved them in a way that reminded me of Tom Cruise in Minority Report. To switch between them, I only had to look at them. And this, to me, is one of the most interesting use cases of the Vision Pro, a portable computer with a seemingly infinite amount of display real estate. You could open multiple apps, resize them to the visual equivalent of a 65-inch display, and have them sit in front and to the sides of you to work on. No notebook, regardless of the size of its display, can let you multi-task like that, and this could make the Vision Pro an irresistible portable computing device.
The other interesting use of the Vision Pro is simply as a 3D and AR consumption device. This isn’t exactly new but Vision Pro takes this to new heights. One demo that stood out was the videos I watched shot in Apple’s new Immersive Video Format. Here, you are presented with 180-degree wide 3D videos recorded with spatial sound. The demo opened with a performance of Alicia Keyes, and then you are transported to a basketball game and then a football game. And in each of them, I was blown away by the level of realism. I’m not sure what it is, maybe it's the jet lag kicking in or maybe it’s a combination of the insane visual quality of the displays and the audio cues of spatial audio. Because I have experienced similar demos before, but they have never given me the same sensation I felt with the Vision Pro. One possibility is that the details truly matter and that the extra attention that Apple has paid to the displays' quality and sound is paying off in some ways.
I could see this being the future of entertainment and sports. Apple says these 3D videos were shot using a proprietary camera recorded in 8K and that there are plans to get these cameras into the hands of studios and broadcasting companies. And it goes without saying that if anyone could herd everyone to adopt a certain format, it’s Apple. This could potentially change the way we watch TV.
The potential for the Vision Pro to be a watershed moment for computing and AR/VR is unquestionable, but it’s early days, and there are obstacles. While the use cases presented are interesting, I don’t see a single clear purpose or “killer app” for it yet. The spatial computer bit has a lot of promise but I didn’t get to use productivity apps on it and I only wore the Vision Pro for a short period so I can’t tell if it’s something you can wear for extended periods without feeling fatigued.
And as for 3D videos, that can only truly take off if studios embrace Apple’s Immersive Video Format. But having to use proprietary 8K cameras might be a hurdle. Apple says the Vision Pro will launch in the US first early next year, so there’s still lots of time for things to happen.
And finally, there’s the price. At US$3,499 (~S$4,719), it’s considerably pricier than any other mass-market headset out there. While it is by no means affordable, it isn’t outright unobtainable either. It’s roughly the price of a very high-spec gaming system. So if it turns out to be compelling enough, it could still be a commercial success.
What I'm trying to say is that while the demos are very impressive, their real-world utility is perhaps less clear. Ultimately, I think the story of the Vision Pro will likely mirror that of the Apple Watch. When the Apple Watch was launched, it was this somewhat pricey smartwatch with no defined purpose. However, Apple stuck at it and finally nailed it. Now, nobody questions what the Apple Watch is for. I won’t be surprised if the Vision Pro headset follows the same trajectory.
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