Jun 07, 2023

Apple Vision Pro VR Headset: Everything You Need to Know

Published June 6, 2023

Dave Gershgorn

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Apple is getting into a new product category with a virtual reality and augmented reality headset called the Apple Vision Pro. With a price tag of $3,500, the new device isn't meant for most people. It also isn't available until early 2024. But when we saw the Vision Pro in person at Apple Park in Cupertino, California, we were intrigued by its potential.

Announcing a device so far ahead of time is unusual for Apple, but launching the headset in advance gives developers time to create apps for the entirely new mixed-reality platform.

Mixed reality combines augmented reality, in which digital objects are overlaid on the real world, and virtual reality, in which the world around you is replaced by a digital one. Most of the headsets released in the past decade, such as the Meta Quest and the HTC Vive, have been virtual reality headsets that include a few cameras capable of offering a low-quality augmented reality experience. The pricier Meta Quest Pro shows the world around you, but its cameras are also low-quality, and the experience isn't that great. If the Vision Pro actually works like it did in the demo video shown during Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, it would represent a significant improvement over the current generation of the technology.

Like other VR headsets, the Vision Pro completely wraps around your head, obscuring your eyes with what looks like a pair of goggles. On the headset's top right side is a digital crown, similar to that of the Apple Watch, which lets you vary how much of the outside world it lets into your VR space—the effect is sort of like dimming the lights on the world around you. The crown is what allows you to transition between virtual reality and augmented reality. When the Vision Pro is in augmented reality mode, its most notable feature appears: The headset's external-facing screen displays a live feed of your eyes inside the headset. This feature, called EyeSight, is supposed to make it less weird for other people to talk to you while you’re wearing the device.

Your eyes are actually a key part of how the headset functions. You control the Vision Pro through its eye tracking (along with your hand gestures and voice). It also relies on your eyes for authentication, as Apple's new Optic ID function (like Face ID, but, you know, for eyes) scans your irises to unlock the Vision Pro.

When I saw the Vision Pro in person at WWDC, it appeared to be a relatively small and less obnoxious-looking headset. Whereas other headsets bulge away from the wearer's face, the Vision Pro brings the wearer's eyes closer to its screens. It's a slimmer design, and as a result its experience could be more immersive. The Meta Quest and the HTC Vive have space enough to accommodate glasses, but the Vision Pro doesn't, so Apple has partnered with Zeiss to create thin corrective optical inserts that magnetically click into place. Those inserts will be sold separately, though how much they’ll cost is currently unclear.

The headset has four main parts. The body, made of Apple's classic machined aluminum, holds the Vision Pro's components: the screens, the M2 processor, and the new R1 processor, which helps sync the headset's sensors. The headset is packed with 12 cameras, five sensors (including lidar), and six microphones. A soft facepiece (called the Light Seal) snaps onto the main unit, and a strap (called the Head Band) magnetically snaps onto the facepiece. The Vision Pro connects to a braided battery cable that looks very similar to a MacBook MagSafe cable or an iMac power cable. Soft, easy to coil, and durable, the cable connects to an aluminum external battery pack, which should fit into a back pocket easily. Apple promises two hours of battery life, but you can also plug the headset into a power source so that it doesn't have to rely on the battery.

Unlike nearly every other headset currently available, the Vision Pro lacks controller accessories. Instead, it tracks your eye movements and recognizes hand gestures, as well as voice commands. It will also connect to Apple's Magic Trackpad and Magic Keyboard, as well as other Bluetooth devices.

Apple wants you to use the Vision Pro for, well, everything. You can spread your work out across an array of large, digital monitors that are invisible to everyone else in the room. You can also watch movies and play games on a 100-foot-wide virtual screen, or have FaceTime chats with friends. The headset will support Apple Immersive Video, which matches a 180-degree view of content with spatial audio.

One crucial advantage: You’ll be able to use the apps that you already use daily on other Apple devices like the iPhone and Mac. Those apps include Safari, Messages, and Apple Arcade.

Apple is making some headset-specific changes in those apps, though, and they might not work exactly as they do on other Apple devices. FaceTime is the most extreme example of this idea so far: Because you’re wearing a headset that covers most of your face, a 3D digital avatar called a Persona represents you in a video call. (You create a Persona by scanning your face when you set up the Vision Pro.)

The headset and all its apps run on a new operating system called visionOS. It will also have its own version of the App Store, which Apple surely anticipates will be well stocked at launch. Apple says that "hundreds of thousands" of iPhone and iPad apps will be available for the Vision Pro when it goes on sale. Disney CEO Bob Iger appeared at WWDC to announce that Disney+ will be available for the Vision Pro on release day.

One of the reasons Apple announced the headset so many months before launch is to give developers the opportunity to make new apps (or to adapt existing ones) for the platform that take advantage of its AR and VR capabilities. Apps could, for instance, make use of the 3D camera to capture three-dimensional images and videos.

The big caveat is that no one will know what the Vision Pro can actually do until someone outside of Apple has the opportunity to test it. And more important, no one knows how comfortable it is to use for extended periods of time. Virtual reality and augmented reality headsets often cause headaches or nausea. Even if a mixed-reality device offers fantastic processing power and optics, it's useless if people want to barf after using it for a few minutes.

People who had access to a preview of the Vision Pro at WWDC were quick to call it an impressive feat of engineering, but some questioned whether an AR/VR headset is the best way to make a FaceTime call.

New York Times technology columnist Brian X. Chen, who tried out the device, writes that its technology is superior to that of headsets from Meta, Magic Leap, and Sony, but he notes that he felt discomfort when using the new FaceTime Persona feature.

"After three years of my being mostly isolated during the pandemic, Apple wanted me to engage with what was essentially a deepfake video of a real person. I could feel myself shutting down," he writes.

The Vision Pro's eye tracking, hand-gesture recognition, and seamless scrolling were what most impressed Marques Brownlee, who runs the tech YouTube channel MKBHD. But Brownlee says that the headset's weight, its lack of haptic feedback from controllers, and the surreal FaceTime Persona are negatives.

The Vision Pro will cost $3,500, far, far more than most other available VR headsets. When the price tag was revealed at WWDC, the Apple die-hards around me gasped, groaned, and even laughed.

Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen told me that the price indicates that Apple knows its technology is leading the field, but that it is also due to the cost of custom hardware and the low anticipated sales volume.

It isn't unusual for groundbreaking tech to cost a lot at launch. Typically, prices come down over time if demand for the device allows a manufacturer to make increasingly larger orders. Early adopters and developers are likely to buy any new big product that Apple releases, regardless of the price. It's also entirely possible that Apple could release a cheaper, more streamlined model after the Vision Pro.

But Nguyen said that the most important part of the event is what wasn't shown.

"What does this device do that's better or significantly different than what my current [Apple] devices do or what other providers have in the market?" Nguyen said. "The announcement was slightly more than a glimpse."

This article was edited by Caitlin McGarry.

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