A New Vision for Spatial Computing: Hands On with the Apple Vision Pro

I’ve been covering the extended reality market for several years now. CCS Insight as a company has been tracking it for even longer. For me, and any of my colleagues focussed on this space, the question we get asked most often is “when’s Apple announcing a headset?”

Yesterday marked a new chapter for the industry as the question was finally answered. Apple unveiled the Vision Pro, which it billed as “the most advanced personal electronics device ever”. It’s been a long time in the making, and although lots of information about the headset had seeped out ahead of the big unveiling, there’s still a lot to learn about how Vision Pro works in practice.

My colleague Ben and I were lucky enough to get some hands-on time with the headset for a demonstration during our visit to Apple Park, putting us in a fairly exclusive club of people who’ve tried the device. As always, it’s exceptionally hard to convey how spatial computing works because of its 3D nature, but I’ll try to explain what exactly we saw and why we were so impressed by it. I’m not going to get bogged down in technical details; I covered those here. Instead, I want to focus on the experience.

Starting from the outside, the Vision Pro makes a striking first impression. The headset looks gorgeous in person, with its curved glass display screaming premium design — as well it should with its $3,499 price tag. The headset draws on Apple’s design heritage, borrowing elements such as the digital crown from the Apple Watch.

Source: CCS Insight

On the head, it feels light and comfortable, thanks to some careful design decisions. One is the modular design, allowing parts of the headset to be customized for the wearer. Users are matched to a face plate so that it sits comfortably against their face, based on a facial scan taken on an iPhone. Apple has also opted to move the power source for the Vision Pro outside the headset altogether, with a power bank providing two hours of battery — the headset can also be plugged in for continuous use. I’ve used plenty of virtual and augmented reality devices, many of which have been a relief to take off after half an hour, but the Vision Pro sat extremely comfortably throughout my demo.

Whereas I’d opted for contact lenses during my trial, my colleague Ben needed to have his glasses measured to assess their prescription. Based on this, his headset was equipped with custom Zeiss optical inserts to match his eyesight; Apple promises this will be part of the sales experience. A lack of space for glasses will upset and possibly exclude some users, but the workaround with prescription lenses seems to be the best fix.

As the headset launched, I was greeted with a familiar cursive “hello”, before the home menu was displayed. This appears as a set of round icons, many of which are immediately familiar. Apps that Apple users know and love, such as Photos, FaceTime and Apple TV+, are built into the experience from the start.

To select an app, it was as simple as looking at it, then tapping my thumb and forefinger together. Vision Pro uses a dozen cameras, six microphones and five further sensors to track a user’s eyes, face, voice and body, so users can navigate the user interface without any controllers at all. Once again, I’ve tested controller-free user interfaces before, but typically these have worked without eye-tracking, therefore requiring slightly more complex gestures. On the Vision Pro, it really is as simple as a look and a tap. To scroll, you just hold the tap and swipe — imagine closing an invisible zip on a jacket.

The first app I jumped into was Photos. Immediately I was greeted by a gallery of images, and in practice, this would be my entire Apple image library, synced straight over from my other devices. The headset breathes new life into pictures and videos. I was able to step into panoramic photos that curved around me, providing a whole new way to revisit old memories. In fact, when it comes to memories, the headset also lets you capture 3D videos with spatial audio and replay these immersive clips. I found these slightly underwhelming at first, but can see the potential appeal.

I then moved over to FaceTime. Video calling is a heavy focus on the Vision Pro and it was fascinating to see this in action. I joined a call with an Apple employee who was also wearing a headset, and they appeared as a sort of hyper-realistic avatar in a floating window. This is created by scanning a user’s face using Vision Pro’s camera array, and the resulting avatar uses facial-tracking features to look as lifelike as possible. It’s a class apart from the cartoonish avatar art styles we’ve seen used for some social VR experiences and sets a new standard in virtual calling.

Source: Apple

Delving into Apple TV+ showed how I could use the Vision Pro as a huge immersive theatre experience. Traditional 2D content works well, as users can watch their favourite movies on a huge virtual display, but I was more impressed by how 3D content pops. I watched a clip of the latest Avatar film in 3D and was amazed at how good it looked. As a huge sports fan, I was even more enticed by a snippet of immersive sports broadcasts from front-row seats. It’s an application that’s been talked about a lot before, but Apple has the partnerships and the clout to actually turn this sort of technology into a reality.

At the end of the demo, I had the moment of readjustment to the real world that regular virtual reality users are familiar with, and since then have been gathering my thoughts on the experience. As I’ve said, it’s hard to describe spatial computing, but this was the best blend I’ve seen between 2D content and immersive experiences.

For people who already have other Apple devices — and let’s be honest, they’re the target market here — having access to an existing library of content, services and apps is a great starting point. I found the overall experience immediately familiar, easy to navigate, and would have no qualms about a less tech-savvy user working out the interface. Apple’s repeated its classic trick of taking a technology and making it simple, streamlined and accessible for everyone to use.

But we have to remember that this really isn’t a mass market consumer device yet. It’s an ultra-premium, experimental device aimed at businesses, developers and enthusiasts, and it may be years before an Apple headset truly hits the mainstream. And some of the existing hurdles with virtual reality continue here — not least the fact that this can be an isolating technology, for single users rather than an experience that’s inherently shareable. Apple addresses some of this with exceptional video passthrough capabilities that break down the barriers between virtual and real worlds, but it still won’t suit everyone.

That said, I was left with a sense of real excitement for what Apple has achieved with the Vision Pro. Yes, it costs $3,499, so it should be good. Thankfully, it is. Having tried the headset, it’s easily the best tech demo I’ve seen in my time as an analyst, and I can’t wait to try it again.