Apple’s Vision Pro, a face computer that resembles Christian Dior ski goggles and goes on sale next week, is seen as Cupertino’s long shot at dominating the ‘spatial computing’ era—one step at a time. Touted as Apple’s most sophisticated product to date, with high-resolution displays and sensors that track eye movements and hand gestures, the company is taking a rather cautious approach with the Vision Pro. This strategy may not ignite bumper sales or long queues at the stores in the short term, but it could help understand users’ acceptance and behaviour when it comes to a computer they strap to their face.
“Apple has a strong track record of making a success of emerging market opportunities, but spatial computing may be its biggest challenge yet,” Leo Gebbie, Principal Analyst, Connected Devices of CCS Insight tells indianexpress.com. Gebbie agrees that the headset market has been “extremely challenging”, but it remains to be seen if Apple can overcome the challenges that have held back its rivals for years.
Coming in at $3,500 and hitting retail shelves only in the US, to begin with, Apple may have already calculated what the initial demand for the headset would look like since the pre-orders opened on January 19. However, the early sales numbers alone couldn’t be the sole indicator that makes or breaks a product.
In the Vision Pro’s case especially, the numbers don’t matter given how premium the headset has been positioned. Yet, even if early sales numbers did surpass Apple’s internal expectations, that doesn’t make the Vision Pro a guaranteed hit either. This device isn’t a new version of the iPhone that’s already familiar to users, no matter how much or how little the device changes. Users already know what a flagship smartphone experience is, in which month Apple launches a new iPhone, and what makes an iPhone different from an Android smartphone.
However, there is no alternative or substitute for the Apple Vision Pro on the market. This reminds us of the debut of the Vision Pro, drawing parallels to the launch of the original Macintosh, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Like the Vision Pro, the Macintosh wasn’t cheap when it launched, and many questioned what one could do with a personal computer that had a graphical user interface with a mouse. But four decades ago, the Macintosh ushered in a new era of computing, the same way Apple’s headset is expected to do now with what Cupertino calls the spatial computing era.
Apple isn’t going the Meta (formerly Facebook) way to market the Vision Pro, and that’s the first differentiation between this headset and everything else on the market. There is no promise of creating the “Metaverse,” the word that often serves as a computing platform for living in a virtual world, nor does Apple seem to be using terms like “Augmented Reality” (AR), “Virtual Reality” (VR), or “Mixed Reality” (MR). It could be a well-thought-out strategy to steer away from the negative sentiments people might have with VR headsets.
Instead, Apple is emphasising the term “spatial computing” — the way we engage with the digital and physical realms. It may seem fancy, but it is essentially mixed reality by combining virtual and augmented reality. Meta’s high-end Quest Pro, a headset announced in 2022, also brings mixed reality to the center, but both devices are optimised and priced differently — almost like how the industry sees Android and iOS.
For years, the tech industry has been attempting to make face computers a success. Google, Meta, Snap, Magic Leap, and Samsung have all tried their hands at selling various headsets in different shapes and sizes, using different technologies. Last year, Meta’s Quest 3, a $500 headset, did receive favourable reviews, but despite improved performance, immersive new mixed-reality features, and a sleeker and more comfortable design, it wasn’t the device that would pull users into the mixed-reality experiences that had been promised.
Like others, Apple too faces the same set of problems. These headsets are heavy, and the neck starts to hurt after wearing them for a few minutes, and even after a session users complain of disorientation. Their short battery life and the lack of purpose are other flaws that keep them away from average consumers. Frankly, the iPhone moment hasn’t come in the headset territory, and this is what Apple wants to change.
The Vision Pro is built on the same ideas as other headsets, but Apple’s version does seem better with impressive displays and video passthrough capabilities. It comes in a beautiful shell and has a user interface that’s familiar and easy to navigate, using hand-tracking and eye-tracking for control. That being said, the Vision Pro is as heavy as the Quest Pro – and it’s connected by a braided cable to a silver battery pack that offers only two hours of use, meaning finishing a full-length movie (say, on an airplane) won’t be possible. No doubt, the Vision Pro is the most polished mixed-reality headset on the market, and considering it is a first-generation device, Apple’s smart goggles seem to have a head start. But what confuses users is if it is a productivity device that could one day replace the Mac a TV or a gaming console.
“The Vision Pro is a calculated risk from Apple. At launch, Apple will face criticism about the price of the Vision Pro, especially when the best set of uses for the headset is still unclear,” says Gebbie.
Perhaps where the Vision Pro can lead, something no other headset has been able to make a mark on in a true sense is on the software side, but so far, Apple seems to be lacking in that department. At launch, the Vision Pro is coming with a handful of apps natively designed to take advantage of the full potential of the headset. Big players like Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify aren’t making apps for the Vision Pro at this moment. That has surely put Apple and the team in a tough spot to market the Vision Pro as an entertainment device. This messaging isn’t positive news for the Vision Pro because Apple’s past products, be it the iPhone or the iPad, thrived on robust developer support and how apps made those products mega-successful. The fact that Vision Pro was announced last year during the annual WWDC 2023, and since its debut, developers had enough time on hand to develop apps for the headset. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
“The audience is not there. That’s why developers are not showing any interest in developing apps for the Vision Pro,” said Selvam M, CEO, and founder at Shortfundly, an online platform for short filmmakers. However, Selvam did mention that once the Vision Pro finds an audience, developers will start making apps for the headset.
The Vision Pro supports a native operating system called VisionOS, which brings some unique experiences for users, like creating a virtual work environment where one can type a document or browse the web. But not all hope is lost, though. When the Vision Pro goes on sale on February 2, users will be able to download Disney+, Microsoft Office, Slack, and Zoom, to name a few. However, the lack of big-ticket apps is something that could put the Vision Pro in a tight spot. This is a little weird, especially at a time when some developers are not happy with Apple over its App Store policies.
“The Vision Pro already supports web apps, so why would developers develop native apps,” asks Selvam. He may be right. The web could be the killer app Apple needs to make the Vision Pro click with users. Sure, developers are right, and they will consider the economics of developing native apps for the Vision Pro, given how small a demographic this new headset platform caters to. For Apple, it may be a chance to revive web apps and make them central to how we consume content. Safari for visionOS does come with headset-specific features — for instance, it lets users open multiple windows at the same time and move them all around in virtual space. That means Apple has an idea that if it supercharges the browser on the Vision Pro, the web could be the potential strategic move to turn its headset into a developer hotbed.
“The absence of major entertainment apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify at launch is a strategic chess move,” suggests Jose E. Puente, CEO and co-founder of Reality Border, a company in the development of immersive technologies. “With 150 apps available at launch, Vision Pro is already showing promise. For context, Meta’s Oculus Quest store had 341 apps two years after its launch. This is a clear signal of the strong interest and potential the developer community sees in Vision Pro.”
One potential use case for the Vision Pro could be gaming. Although Apple has never presented the headset as meant for gaming, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if developers eventually start making games for the Vision Pro in the future. Apple said the Vision Pro will have access to over 100 Apple games on the Vision Pro. But then, Apple needs the support of third-party game developers to bring AAA gaming on the headset, or completely a new set of games designed for face computers.
“The Vision Pro will most likely have a large array of casual simple games that do not use controllers,” says Ted Pollak, Game Tech Management Consultant at Jon Peddie Research and Index Manager for GAMR ETF. “There is no controller support for the Apple headset; however, third-party controllers, I believe, can be supported. That being said, the number of owners that are interested in gaming does not justify a lot of investment at this time.”
“Meta is a more attractive platform for developers because of the installed base and the price points of the hardware are the mass market. But the thing about Apple is that they may introduce a revolutionary concept in gaming that no one has done before. However, it’s yet to be seen. The hand control and eye tracking need to be perfect and fast because gamers have been using controllers for 30 years or more,” he added.
The thing that could be misunderstood about the Vision Pro—and this has happened before—is that Apple isn’t expecting this headset to be a mass-market product anytime soon. A headset like the Vision Pro is a long-term goal of bringing computers to our faces. That doesn’t mean the end of the iPhone or the Mac. It may happen or may not happen at all. More importantly, Apple is waiting for real competition from rivals to come into the mixed-reality headset space, which doesn’t seem to be happening. That’s why the fate of the Vision Pro doesn’t matter much to Apple. If Meta fails – perhaps the biggest player in the smart goggles space – Apple will continue to sell the iPhone and Macs in record numbers, as it has been doing for years. However, if Meta’s Quest headsets succeed (even if by chance), Apple would take the Vision Pro seriously.