Apple's Vision Pro future, as told in three parts

By Dann Berg

Published or Updated on

Dann wearing the Apple Vision Pro, taking a photo in the mirror. The text reads “Apple Vision Pro’s Future”

I.

The Apple Vision Pro isn’t the first AR/VR headset, but it still feels like the beginning of something new. I’ve been trying to pinpoint why it feels that way since first trying it on, and I think I finally figured it out. And it’s not really something I’ve seen discussed in any other tech reviews.

There were three epiphany moments I had when using the Vision Pro. The first occurred when using the controls (eye and hand tracking). The second happened while watching an immersive show produced by Apple TV+. And the third epiphany came to me the moment I connected my laptop to the headset via virtual display.

Epiphany 1: Why this feels like the future

When Apple first announced the product, they immediately let reporters at the keynote try the upcoming headset. A comment from many was that the experience felt like a peek into the future. I was both skeptical and intrigued by this comment. “Skeptical” because we already had VR (ie the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PS VR), so why would the Vision Pro be a peek into the future that wasn’t already clear from these other headsets? And I was “intrigued” for pretty much the exact same reason—because most of these reports had tried other VR devices and were still making that comment.

After using the headset for myself, I can report having the exact same thoughts. Using the Vision Pro is like peeking into the future, in a novel way I never felt with other devices.

It took me several days to really pinpoint why. But I think I finally figured it out. And a big part of that is Vision Pro controls.

Unlike previous VR headsets, which use physical controllers that have buttons and joysticks, the Apple Vision Pro uses eye tracking and hand tracking to control the device. You look at a button and tap your thumb and index fingers to tap. And like the touch screen on the first iPhone, it just works.

In fact, the only thing to compare this to is the first iPhone, because the first iPhone also felt like the beginning of something new—the end of the old era of cell phones. And, like the Vision Pro, I think a lot of that had to do with the way users interacted with the device.

The iPhone touch screen was leaps and bounds ahead of any other touch screen available. Most touch screen devices were still using styluses (think: Palm Treo) and they were fine. Those touch screens still exist today in many grocery store pin pads. You know, the ones you sometimes need to tap multiple times.

The iPhone display was both accurate and responsive to touch. Scrolling to browse or pinching to zoom for the first time was a revelation. It was the realization that a touch screen display can be good. Before then, everyone just assumed that the previous limitations were the limit of what was possible. The iPhone proved otherwise, and ushered in the next wave of technological progress.

The Apple Vision Pro makes this same level of progress with touchless controls.

Sure, it’s not perfect. In these first few days of ownership, there have been several times when I’m watching a video and unknowingly tap those fingers together and accidentally paused the video or skipped ahead (especially frequent in the third-party YouTube app Juno, which (despite its flaws) is still very much a worthwhile app). Likewise, I’ve noticed that petting my cat when he’s sitting on my lap is also often mistaken for a click.

But the controls just feel so natural that it almost feels already familiar. Like I’ve been controlling things this way for years.

Epiphany 2: Immersion correctly approached

I was watching “Highlining,” on the Vision Pro, the first episode of the new Apple TV immersive show Adventure, when I had a striking sense of deja vu. I was flying over the huge cliffs in Norway, turning my head in all directions trying to take in the view, when I realized I had almost this exact same experience before.

It dawned on me that I may be in a small group of people who have both used the Apple Vision Pro and also been to The Sphere in Las Vegas. The big immersive movie playing at The Sphere, Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard From Earth, would fit right in on the Apple Vision Pro.

With regards to entertainment, I think The Sphere and the Apple Vision Pro are both trying to accomplish the same thing in extremely similar ways. In The Sphere, you can look in all directions during the experience, and be completely immersed in the show. With the Apple Vision Pro, it’s the exact same thing.

But I also think the futuristic, immersive experience of The Sphere highlights both the limitations as well as the potential of the Apple Vision Pro.

If there were a spectrum of immersive experience devices, with the entry-level Oculus on one end and The Sphere on the other, then the Vision Pro would be closer to the left than the right. And that’s not because it’s anywhere close in quality to the entry-level Oculus (it’s not), but because it’s still super far from a venue like The Sphere.

Chart showing a spectrum of immersive experience devices. The Vision Pro is closer to the Oculus than The Sphere

This first generation of the Vision Pro feels like looking into The Sphere through a tunnel capped with some type of lens. The “lens” in question has a certain quality that it’s hard to put a finger on—it’s an uncanny valley of reality. Something is a little off.

The resolution of the Vision Pro, while mind-blowing compared to competitive headsets, is still leaps and bounds away from the experience of physically sitting in The Sphere.

Any yet…there’s a reason why the Apple Vision Pro has so many tech enthusiasts giddy. The only flaws in the device (and they are fatal flaws, in terms of a mass-market product) are in the execution, not the vision. And these flaws are only a matter of today’s technological limitations. As MKBHD put so perfectly in his review: “tomorrow’s ideas…today’s technology.”

At the end of Postcard From Earth at The Sphere, I walked back out onto the Las Vegas strip, fully immersed in the reality of the huge crowds, long ride-share lines, and busy traffic.

At the end of “Highlining,” with the Vision Pro still on, my living room materialized around me. But unlike in Vegas, everything was slightly askew. I was still looking at my surroundings through a tunnel capped with a lens. I appreciated the digital apps still around me, but taking the headset off only serves to highlight how far technology still has to go.

Epiphany 3: Being inside your computer

Apple’s philosophy on computing is consistent across all its different products. Each device gives you access to the same information, but the size and function of each display alters the user experience.

Working on a MacBook just feels different than working on an iPad, even with a keyboard and mouse. Despite having access to the same digital information, the differences in each interface have big impacts on what it feels like to get things done. Sure, you can do real work on an iPad, but it feels much better suited to be a media consumption device.

Taking this to a farther extreme, the Apple Watch can access your digital world, thanks to internet connectivity, but just try to write an email or do real work. Depending on the task, you’ll want your phone or laptop instead.

In fact, the size of the display is almost directly proportional to the potential productivity level and/or size of work. It varies slightly person to person, but a rough way to think about it is this:

Device and optimum work (by size)

  • Apple Watch: receiving notifications, sending quick replies
  • iPhone: doomscrolling, checking social media, texting, short emails
  • iPad: watching movies/YouTube, browsing internet, some productivity
  • Laptop: all the above, great multi-tasking and a high productivity ceiling
  • Laptop with external display/Desktop: maximum productivity and multi-tasking

The Vision Pro isn’t about stepping into a virtual world. It’s about stepping into a virtual display—the biggest possible display since it’s (potentially) the size of the world.

The Vision Pro adds another bullet point to this list:

  • Vision Pro: even more maximum productivity and multi-tasking?

Thinking about the Vision Pro as a monitor that you can step inside makes the final vision so much more clear and attainable. We’re no longer striving for Matrix-level virtual reality. Instead, we’re just placing apps around our environment, and enjoying movies/TV shows with a new level of immersion.

Stepping inside a display versus stepping inside a virtual world feels like splitting hairs. But when you actually try the Vision Pro, you see that it makes all the difference.

II.

The future Apple is selling

It’s not all about specs. In the same way it doesn’t make sense to compare iPhones vs Android phones based completely on benchmark test results, so, too, does it feel strange to try and compare the Vision Pro to other VR headsets.

Apple’s headset feels like something new. Up until now, most people thought about VR as stepping into a video game. From one of the first Oculus Rift demos (walking around a low-poly castle) to even the most modern devices, the VR experience has been shutting out the outside world and being fully immersed in a digital one.

Sure, this has been due to technological limitations, but also limitations of imagination. Even the Meta Quest 3, which has the most competitive augmented reality (AR) experience next to Apple, is still mostly focused on fully immersive experiences.

We, as a society, can’t be faulted for sharing this vision of VR. We’ve been inundated with depictions of a future with humans fully entering digital worlds: The Matrix, Ready Player One, TRON, Black Mirror‘s two-time Emmy Award-winning episode “San Junipero,” the TV show Upload. And even shows like Westworld and Inception, while not strictly depicting virtual reality, present a future of fully immersive experience.

If movies and TV shows like that are our benchmark, of course today’s headsets are going to disappoint. Today’s technology isn’t even close to that. No wonder most people look at VR and shrug it off as unnecessary and gimmicky.

The Vision Pro is Apple’s attempt to steer the ship in an entirely different direction. It’s not about putting on a headset and entering a virtual world. It’s about adding digital elements to your real world, and dipping in and out of more immersive experiences temporarily.

So, how does a company sell a new vision for humans interacting in virtual worlds?

First, it’s very careful with language. According to Apple, the Vision Pro is spatial computing, not virtual reality. You’re not actually entering a new world, just having an immersive experience. You can dip in and out (note: not out and in) to adjust immersion into digital content.

Then, it has to design a product experience (and especially demo!) that highlights that reality is first priority, and immersive experiences second. When you first put the headset on, you’re greeted by your familiar surroundings. The Encounter Dinosaurs interactive experience—pre-installed on all headsets and an important part of the product demo—begins in your physical space before opening a wall-sized window into a prehistoric world.

Users can place apps around their room, and these stick in place until physically moved by the user. It’s shocking how good this is.

The first time you feel like you’re entering a different world is when you play your first immersive experience show on Apple TV+. And even then, the experience is the same as playing any TV show or movie, so you’re very much aware that this is a piece of entertainment rather than a virtual world to explore.

Nothing about the experience of using the Vision Pro is designed to make you actually lose your sense of place. You’re still physically in the room where you first put on the headset.

The strongest way to absorb Apple’s vision is to just demo the product. So then, the question becomes, how can you make people want to demo the Vision Pro, when so many are already disillusions by all the proceeding VR headsets?

Guerrilla Marketing to sell the vision

Apple has something that no other company has: an army of loyal fans and early adopters (derogatorily known as “fanboys”) as well as a legion of forward-thinking tech reviewers to proselytize the vision.

Even ignoring the leaks and rumors, certain bubbles of the Internet have been inundated with content and speculation about the headset since its official announcement in June 2023. There was a spike in headlines early January 2024, when the pre-order and release date was announced (as a way to steal attention away from CES, as I mentioned in my newsletter), and that pre-release hype hit a fever pitch when the review embargo lifted for journalists. Then, on release date, the stream of early adopter footage helped show what it was actually like to own the device (with a healthy dose of viral shenanigans that only really pop up with Apple device releases).

It’s a content bomb that money can’t buy, and it’s a uniquely Apple way to release a new product.

By contrast, let’s think about Meta (formerly Facebook). Coverage of the company is much less kind. It’s a company constantly defending itself—its content moderation policies, impact on politics, impact on children, privacy violations, monetization strategy, etc. It’s even a common joke that founder Mark Zuckerberg is a robot, a persistent and dehumanizing meme.

As a result, when a company like Meta presents a new vision (like the Oculus VR headset), it’s already starting from a place of consumer skepticism. Meta needs to prove itself from the get-go. That’s a tough place to come from when selling a vision of the future. Especially one that it (Meta) wants to provide.

Meta’s business model also hurts its message. When a company makes money from ad revenue, the user is the product. User data and attention is sold to the highest bidder. Knowing this, it’s not unfair to wonder if the Quest is just another way to sell ads. Maybe it’s not filled with ads (yet?), but again, this is Meta starting from a place of defense.

Apple doesn’t have any of these same issues. Its business model is to sell premium products and services at a high price point. People can argue over the use of the word “premium” here, and whether the prices are justified, but you can’t argue that Apple devices and services are the product, not the users.

Additionally, Apple has a long history of releasing first generation devices that launch entire product categories. The iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch weren’t the first products with their respective features, but they were the first to make give these products mass market appeal and to make them cool.

Admittedly, just because Apple has been successful in the past with products like the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be successful with the Vision Pro. But these past wins do launch this product into a market of optimism rather than a place of defense (which increases the long-term chance of success).

Still, market sentiment alone is not enough to create a breakthrough product that defines a new category. The product needs to actually be revolutionary.

And it’s here that I think Apple succeeds.

III.

There are two approaches for bringing a new product to market. Entrepreneurs can either solve a problem that users know they have, or solve a problem users didn’t know they have.

The former is incremental progress. The latter is where we get giant leaps in innovation. It’s going from zero to one.

Launching a business that solves a known problem is straightforward. There are books that literally lay out formulas to bring these products to market. It’s not easy, but it’s a known and proven path.

The real challenges happen in the second category, when potential users don’t know what they want, or they’re wrong about what they want.

If you’re creating a product in this second category, it’s easy to get stuck. Is there no existing market demand because the idea is terrible, or because it’s so revolutionary that it’s going to change everything?

In 2012, a Kickstarter campaign titled “Oculus Rift: Step Into the Game” launched. The product, created by then 18-year-old Palmer Lucky, was a VR headset designed to let gamers virtually enter their games. The campaign was a wild success. It turned out that many people wanted to “step into the game.”

Despite being a completely new product that catalyzed modern interest in virtual reality, the problem that this product solved wasn’t new. People had been dreaming of being fully immersed in video games for decades, thanks to a long history of sci-fi novels and shows. Notable attempts include Nintendo’s Virtual Boy in 1991 and Sword of Damocles dating all the way back to 1968.

The Oculus Rift was the most successful solution to this problem to date—it captured both imaginations as well as the eyes of influential people. Oculus was acquired by Facebook in 2014, and the headset was iterated on and improved in subsequent years. Seven years after the acquisition, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was so impressed with the technology that he renamed his company from Facebook to Meta in 2021, committing fully to a future of virtual reality.

The initial rumors that Apple was working on its own VR headset started popping up in early 2016, a couple years after Facebook acquired Oculus, and five years before Zuckerberg’s decision to re-name his empire to Meta. These rumors caused both suspicious and optimism.

Suspicion because:

  • VR headsets are primarily gaming devices, and Apple historically isn’t the strongest gaming platform
  • VR was only appealing to a niche audience: gamers who wanted to step into their game.
  • Any sort of VR application outside of gaming seemed impossible

Optimism because:

  • If this was really a secret project Apple was working on, it must have some new angle
  • If anyone can do VR in a way to appeal to a larger, mass audience, it’s Apple
  • Apple’s success rate with new products like this (not the first to market, but totally re-inventing the market) is high

But from that vantage point, back in 2016, it seemed like Apple had an impossible task ahead of itself. There was an existing market for VR, and it was small and niche. If Apple wanted to dominate the space, launching a VR headset that could become its next iPhone or Apple Watch, it would need to build demand where no demand existed. It would need to solve a problem that users didn’t know they had.

I was mostly skeptical of Apple’s rumored VR headset, with just a touch of optimism back in 2016. Eight years later, after actually using the Vision Pro, I finally understand why Apple decided to make this product. And I am now acutely aware of a problem I didn’t know I had.

Right now, our digital lives are trapped behind tiny screens. All our applications, digital communication, and connection feel one-step removed from us. All our lives, we haven’t questioned this, because it’s just how things were. We couldn’t even imagine it any differently.

Apple’s vision for “spatial computing” isn’t just an evolution of previous VR gaming devices. It solves a new problem that people didn’t know they had: how can I remove that distance between myself and my digital life?

The first generation Vision Pro isn’t a perfect device. It doesn’t actually solve this problem. But it makes users keenly aware that there is a problem to be solved. Once again, Apple is peering into the future in a way no one else can, and successfully solving a future problem.

Almost universally, all reviewers of the Apple Vision Pro say that people should not buy them right now. It’s just not good enough, and it’s way too expensive. I totally agree.

But trying this headset seems to also make people aware of this problem they didn’t know they had. That’s why I strongly recommend going to an Apple Store to try a demo. It’s enough to give you a taste of Apple’s vision for the future, and make you, too, aware of a problem you didn’t know you had.

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