Apple this week finally unveiled the $3,499 Vision Pro, its long-awaited mixed reality headset. It evoked many descriptions – a “spatial computer that seamlessly blends digital content with the physical world”, a “personal movie theater with a screen that feels 100 feet wide” – but one word was conspicuously absent: “metaverse.”
The metaverse, a virtual world where people meet as avatars to play, work and socialize, was all the rage not too long ago. Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta in 2021, and companies from Microsoft to Sony have proudly unveiled headsets. But the view that excited executives have landed with the consumer with a thump.
“This one is for you, the believers . . . the people who would rather be early than fashionably late,” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, stated with a hint of snark last year when he unveiled his professional Meta Quest Pro headset. At the right time, Apple came to the party late this week with a disdainful look at the early arrivals.
Apple took its time. It’s been working on virtual and augmented reality for seven years, and the Vision Pro still lacks some of the sleek styling it’s known for: the headset is tethered to a separate battery. Still, those who briefly tried it were impressed by the high resolution of the images and the thinking behind them.
“You know there’s a screen in front of you, but it feels very real. I’ve never had that feeling before,” Francisco Jeronimo, an analyst for IDC Europe, told me. Leo Gebbie, from CCS Insight, said he’s tried dozens of headsets over the years and “I can safely say this is the best experience I’ve ever had”.
Apple hasn’t just let money get in the way. At seven times the price of Meta’s forthcoming Quest 3 headset, which is intended to do some of the same things, the Vision Pro is defiantly expensive. It crams 23 million pixels onto two tiny screens, viewed through custom lenses, with photos and videos rendered by two Apple chips.
This sounds like overkill, but one of the problems with virtual reality is that the technology is inadequate. Instead of being seamlessly transported into a digital utopia, headset wearers felt uncomfortable, disoriented, and sometimes nauseous. They have also looked ridiculous and cut off from their surroundings.
Not being in California this week for the launch, I instead headed to East London’s Otherworld, billed as “the world’s most immersive VR experience”. There, I wore an HTC Vive Pro headset, held two controllers, and climbed into a pod to play a variety of games, including Fruit Ninjaon an island metaverse.
Others were enjoying themselves, but my main sensations after half an hour were motion sickness and the urge to escape outside. Apple has tried to solve the first problem, which is common with headsets, by displaying the images fast enough that there is no noticeable delay and therefore less nausea.
But there’s a deeper difficulty with virtual reality: the idea of the metaverse itself. As excited as Zuckerberg and others are about turning us into cartoons to spend hours in virtual worlds, it remains unconvincing except for gaming. I was never tempted and, judging by the sales numbers, neither were many others.
It’s much more natural to stay in the beautifully lit, high-definition world we already live in, with digital elements covered in technology. That idea, known as augmented reality, is what Apple was aiming for with the Vision Pro, and its presentation succeeded this week by demonstrating how it might work.
The first thing users see after putting on a headset is the rooms they’re in, rather than a virtual world. They are shown the usual array of Apple apps, which they select with eye and hand movements, and which open in screen-like displays. Even watching a movie, they can tell if someone is approaching them.
In fact, the Vision Pro is a trick mirror: instead of being an augmented reality device, it’s a virtual reality headset pose like one. Users see images of the world through high-definition cameras instead of staring through the crosshairs. Apple hasn’t managed to make any real AR glasses yet.
So while Apple CEO Tim Cook opened up his comments saying that “augmented reality is a profound technology”, he also referred to the Vision Pro as “the beginning of a journey”. That was probably wise: I won’t be rushing to spend $3,499 on this first attempt at making a headset a must-have technology.
But Apple accomplished one thing this week: it made plausible the mass appeal of such a device. It revealed something both more familiar and advanced than what came before, and made today’s virtual worlds even less attractive. The universal metaverse already looked financially dangerous; it feels outdated now.
Apple isn’t necessarily destined to dominate augmented reality; by the time an affordable Vision arrives, others will have had time to adapt. But it has a habit of defining technologies from the Macintosh to the iPhone. According to this week’s evidence, it still has a knack for being fashionably late.