On Monday I got a glimpse of Apple’s vision for the future of computing. I wore it for about half an hour $3,500 Vision ProThe company’s first high-tech goggle, which will be released next year.
I walked away with mixed feelings, including a sense of doubt.
On the one hand, I was impressed by the quality of the headset, which Apple touts as ushering in an era of “spatial computing,” where digital data blends with the physical world to unlock new capabilities. For example, imagine wearing a headset to assemble furniture while instructions are digitally projected onto parts, or a recipe displayed in the corner of your eye while cooking.
But after wearing the new headset to view the photos and interact with the virtual dinosaurs, I also got the feeling that there wasn’t much new to see here. And the experience gained an “ick” factor that I’ve never had with any Apple product before. More on this later.
Let me start from the beginning. Afterwards Apple unveils the headset On Monday, its first major new release since the Apple Watch in 2015, I was allowed to try out a preproduction model of the Vision Pro. Apple employees took me to a private room at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters and sat me down on a couch for a demo.
The Vision Pro, which resembles a pair of ski goggles, has a white USB cable that plugs into a silver battery pack that I stash in my jeans pocket. To put it on my face, I turned a knob on the side of the headset to adjust the snugness and secured a Velcro strap over my head.
I pressed a metal button on the front of the device to turn it on. Then I went through a setup process that involved looking at a moving dot so the headset could lock onto my eye movements. The Vision Pro has an array of sensors to track eye movements, hand gestures, and voice commands, which are the primary ways to control it. Viewing an icon is equivalent to hovering over it with the mouse cursor; To press a button, you tap your thumb and forefinger together, making a quick pinch that is equivalent to clicking a mouse.
The pinch gesture was also used to grab and move apps around on the screen. It was intuitive and felt less clunky than the wiggling around motion controllers that usually come with competing handsets.
But it raised questions. What other hand gestures will the headset recognize for playing games? What good is voice control if Siri’s voice transcription doesn’t work properly on the phone? Apple isn’t yet sure what other gestures will be supported, and it didn’t let me try out the voice controls.
so many uses?
Then it was time for the app to showcase how the headset can enrich our daily lives and help us stay connected to each other.
Apple first guided me by watching photos and a video of the birthday party on the headset. I can turn a dial counterclockwise on the front of the Vision Pro to make the photo background more transparent and see the real world, including Apple employees around me, or clockwise to make the photo more opaque. can be rotated in any direction.
Apple also had me open a meditation app in the headset that showed 3-D animations while soothing music played and a voice instructed me to breathe. But meditation couldn’t prepare me for what came next: a video call.
A small window popped up—reporting a FaceTime call coming in from another Apple employee wearing a headset. I looked at the answer button and pinched to take the call.
In the video call the Apple employee was using a “persona”, an animated 3-D avatar of himself that the headset created using a scan of his face. Apple portrays videoconferencing as a more intimate way for people to communicate and even collaborate in virtual spaces.
The Apple employee’s facial expressions seemed life-like and his mouth movements were in sync with his speech. But because of the way her avatar was digitally rendered, with the uniform texture of her face and the lack of shadows, I could tell it was fake. It was like a video hologram I’d seen in sci-fi movies like “Minority Report”.
In a FaceTime session, the Apple employee and I had to collaborate on building 3-D models in an app called Freeform. But I stared blankly at it, thinking about what I was seeing. After being mostly isolated for three years during the pandemic, Apple wanted me to engage with a deepfake video of a real person. I could feel locked out. My “hard” sensation was probably what technologists have long described uncanny valleyThe feeling of unease when a human sees a machine construct that looks too human.
A technical achievement? Yes. One feature I’d actually like to use with others every day? Probably not anytime soon.
To wrap up the demonstration with some fun, Apple showed a simulation of a dinosaur that moved toward me when I reached out my hands. I’ve seen more than my fair share of digital dinosaurs in virtual reality (almost every headset maker that gave me a VR demo showed jurassic park simulation over the past seven years) and I wasn’t excited about it.
After the demo, I went home and processed the experience during a busy hour.
Over dinner, I talked to my wife about the Vision Pro. That said, the Apple Goggles look and feel better than competing headsets. But I’m not sure it matters.
The Meta and other Sony PlayStation headsets were much cheaper and already quite powerful and enjoyable, especially for playing video games. But whenever our guests came over for dinner and saw the glasses on, they lost interest after less than half an hour because the experience was exhausting and they felt socially disconnected from the group.
Does it matter that they can just rotate the dial on the front of the headset to see the real world while wearing it? I suspect it will still feel isolated, as they will probably be the only person in the room wearing one.
But more important to me was the idea of connecting with other people, including family members and coworkers, through the Apple headset.
“Your mother is getting old,” I told my wife. “When you’re FaceTiming with him, would you rather see his deepfake digital avatar, or a crappy video call where he’s holding the phone camera at an unattractive angle to his face?”
“The latter,” he said without hesitation. “It’s real. However, I would much rather see him in person.