Hands on With Apple’s Vision Pro: The Opposite of Disappearing

PHOTOGRAPH: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

Hands on With Apple’s Vision Pro: The Opposite of Disappearing

The mixed-reality headset is the company’s most surprising product in years. Is that a good thing?

APPLE’S LONG-AWAITED MIXED-REALITY headset, the Vision Pro, is here. Or not yet here, but announced. In a crescendoed moment of its software conference keynote this morning, Apple executives revealed a pair of smart goggles that portend a post-iPhone world. There’s Apple again, taking a wait-and-see approach. There’s Apple, taking aim at Meta. There’s Apple taking over … your face.
I had a hands-on (heads-on?) demo of the Vision Pro headset earlier today, in a building constructed on Apple’s campus specifically to house meetings about this new product. Apple executives declined to go on the record during the demo and subsequent briefing, but it was clear that Apple views Vision Pro as a spatial computing platform, not a singular device. Its standout feature—the ability to adjust the immersion level of your virtual environment—is probably its best selling point, even at $3,500. It means that app makers who want to build 2D overlays of collaboration software can do that, and content creators who want to shoot dinosaur movies in stereoscopic can do that too.
Still, Apple is asking consumers to cough up an exorbitant amount of money for a product that has yet to prove its consistent worthiness. And whether it’s a platform or product might not matter to most people in this first iteration of the product.
The headset uses eye-tracking, hand gestures, and voice for input. There are no hand controllers.
The headset uses eye-tracking, hand gestures, and voice for input. There are no hand controllers.

 

After entering the Vision Pro’s temporary housing situation, I was greeted by an Apple employee who used a Face ID-like app to first scan my face and then, bizarrely, my ears. (The latter was for mapping spatial audio.) Then an Apple-employed optometrist scanned my eyeglasses in order to measure my corrective lens prescription, though I opted to wear contact lenses instead of my glasses, for a more comfortable face-computer experience. What a time to be alive!
In a closed meeting room, a headset that had been personally calibrated for me sat on a coffee table. Vision Pro is indeed giving ski goggles, if the ski goggles were imagined by Denis Villeneuve. In the years leading up to this product launch, some blogs have published renderings that suggested a mash-up of preexisting Apple products, and these were not entirely off the mark: The seal of the goggles is reminiscent of the cloth-and-foam seal on the AirPods Max headphones, and the soft strap that runs along the top of the head looks a lot like an Apple Watch wristband. The “digital crown,” or dial, is familiar.
Apple’s Vision Pro is a tethered headset, though that depends on what’s considered “tethered” in this strange new world. It’s connected to an external battery, a sleek aluminum pack that will get you two hours of uninterrupted run time. You can also tether the Vision Pro to a Mac, using USB-C, for nonstop Visioning.
The battery pack. PHOTOGRAPH: PHILIP PACHECO/GETTY IMAGES
The battery pack. PHOTOGRAPH: PHILIP PACHECO/GETTY IMAGES

 

I assumed this external battery pack meant the headset itself would feel as light as a feather, but it still felt hefty. Once I adjusted both a bigger backstrap and the top soft strap, I went through another calibration process, which concluded with an audible chime of approval. (Still, a light orb appeared in the middle distance throughout my demo.)
The Vision Pro interface is intuitive—within a few gestures and taps on the digital crown, I had it down. External cameras obviate the need for hand controllers, because the device sees your hands. And internal eye-tracking cameras see where your eyes are looking, so it knows which app you want to open or close.
In home mode, a virtual dock of Apple apps floated in front of me. I could still see the real-life living room surroundings. An AR home screen of Apple apps is as vanilla as it sounds. The app containers themselves were certainly not reinvented, and their icons were not little grabble globules or anything else that conferred volume. They were just … there.
The more interesting part was how I interacted with them. I opened Photos by first gazing at the app, then pinching my forefinger and thumb together. I scrolled through photos by “grabbing” each image and swiping to the left, and expanded panoramic photos by staring and tapping at the Expand option. I scrolled web 2D pages in Safari using my eyes and a couple fingers. I opened Messages this same way, too, though audio interactions aren’t ready yet, and I wasn’t able to record or send a message. Most content I saw wasn’t fully volumetric, nor could I pinch the apps to scale up or bring myself into them. An Apple representative said that app makers can build these experiences in the future.
FaceTime would be, in theory, an opportunity to create an extremely human experience in mixed-reality headsets. In my demo, it didn’t achieve this. The internal cameras within the headset are capable of capturing and regurgitating your face in digital form, a hyperrealistic digital twin that appears before the person you’re chatting with. In my FaceTime demo I chatted with the digital twin of an Apple employee who cheerfully talked me through some of these features. But she seemed disembodied. She was real, but she was also not. I’m afraid I don’t even recall her name.
The digital crown lets you dial in the amount of reality you want.
The digital crown lets you dial in the amount of reality you want.

 

While using some apps, the room dimmed around me, which is one of the more compelling parts of Vision Pro. It either auto-magically dims when you’re using certain apps, or it can be manually dimmed using the little dial on your headset. Tap into one of the virtual “Environments” Apple seeded on the demo unit, and the Scandinavian normcore living room would disappear around me. Open Apple TV+ and air-tap into a stereoscopic video reel, then select Cinematic mode, and you might as well be in the Alamo Drafthouse. This is what Apple seems to think is the essence of making this a platform versus a product: You don’t have to choose between AR and VR. Your app can be anything you want it to be.
Vision Pro shone in the entertainment category, especially because it was dynamic. I first watched a clip of Avatar 2 in 3D. Then, in a teaser of a new dinosaur-focused series from director Jon Favreau, a dinosaur stomped dangerously close to where I stood in the room based on the positioning of my sensor-filled headset. A digital butterfly fluttered around the room before landing on my outstretched finger. These experiences could absolutely happen in other AR or VR headsets. The difference is that Apple has the ability to entice Hollywood directors and app makers to build them.

Vision Quest

Apple’s Vision Pro headset has the potential to eventually mainstream AR in a way that other face computers haven’t, simply because it’s Apple. Already developers are expressing excitement about the headset. And again, at $3,500, the first units of the Vision Pro will likely be snapped up by developers and gadget lovers with disposable income.
But the Vision Pro is also unlike almost every other modern Apple product in one crucial way: It doesn’t disappear. In fact, it does the opposite. It rests on your face and shields your eyes, sensory organs that are a crucial part of the lived human experience. The same is true of every other heads-up display in the world, whether it’s a pair of AR glasses, an industrial-focused headset, or fully immersive VR goggles. The experience can be remarkable and surreal, for sure; but it requires a suspension of disbelief and a sacrifice of autonomy. Even Apple can’t out-design its way out of what is fundamentally an obtrusive technology.
Every successful Apple product of the past two decades has disappeared into our lives in some way—the iPhone into our pockets, the iPad into our purses, the Apple Watch living on our wrists, and the AirPods resting in our ears. Wearing the Vision Pro for hours on end will call into question what it means to compute, but also, what it means to live in the real world. My forehead felt cool when I took the Vision Pro off after around 30 minutes, a testament to Apple’s considerate design. But my face also breathed with relief, the way it has after using other heads-up displays. The air feels more real out here.

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