Augmented and Virtual Reality Goal Posts

A couple of weeks ago, Apple announced—to much fanfare and anticipation and rumor—the Apple Vision Pro, a high-end AR/VR headset that also introduces a new computing platform for the company. Even those with high expectations going into the reveal were impressed; folks who got to try the experience gave very positive previews.

There’s a sense that the Vision Pro would not be nearly as good, or even possible, without all the hardware and software investments that the company has been making in the past decade. The 4K displays and efficient chipsets come from iPhones and iPads; visionOS and the associated SDK build off of ARKit and augmented reality in iOS; integrating an instance of macOS feels like an evolution of the continuity features that span across all of Apple’s platforms. That said, the engineering team did have to invent a whole host of new technology to complement the device: the frontal display, 3D cameras, detailed finger and eye tracking, and a native user interface for this “spatial computing.”

Taking a step back, a year ago, I was reflecting on how far VR has come since the original Oculus Rift. It was easy to trace the lineage from the Rift to the Meta Quest 2; each aspect of the clunkiness of the original headset was gradually improved, from simpler hand controllers to removing the tracking sensors to untethering from a PC to its overall physical dimensions and weight. In comparison, the software has been disappointingly static; the OS is mostly used to launch games and apps, and Meta’s own Horizons social app has been famously barren.

The Vision Pro isn’t just a bunch of advanced, expensive hardware—it presents a set of use cases around work productivity and personal computing that current headsets have struggled to address. The closest we have are the Meta Quest Pro and Microsoft’s Hololens; both emphasize their utility in specific enterprise verticals that require custom apps for their domains. Apple’s headset is focused on consumers, and their spatial interface amounts to projecting familiar 2D screens into 3D space, windows of personal photos and streaming video apps.

In a way, this new chapter in AR/VR is akin to releasing a concept car. Plenty of critics1 have derided the Vision Pro launch by pointing out the $3,500 price point as dead-on-arrival—particularly for a supposed consumer product. Rather, the way to think about Apple’s first headset is that it’s a commercial prototype that you happen to be able to buy, with implications on both hardware and software.

VR hardware has been improving at a steady pace, in line with electronic improvements brought about by generations of smartphones. The Vision Pro packs a step function above other consumer headsets, setting a new standard that others will race to meet. Like every other piece of consumer electronics, manufacturing scale and familiarity will drive prices down.

VR software has become stale, partially due to a lack of imagination on the part of the headset manufacturers, but mostly because there haven’t been enough developers to explore new virtual reality use cases and come up with killer apps2. Apple is going above and beyond in assisting third-party devs to build in visionOS; they understand that bootstrapping a new platform is a chicken-and-egg problem. The initial price of the Vision Pro guarantees a small user base, so it’ll be up to the 2nd and 3rd generations of the device to garner enough users to reach mass-market adoption and pique developer interest organically3.

Up to this point, the VR industry has been progressing on a slow-and-steady cycle of iterative improvements, focused primarily on gaming. The strategy has been to eventually get to that sweet spot of functionality and price, where it’ll be cheap and useful enough to act as a gaming console, with Meta looking to tack on a layer of social functionality. Apple’s entry here presents a different take on the utility of AR & VR, towards a glimpse at broad general computing. And even though it’s still months away from launch and years away from being a practical device, it’s moved the goal posts enough; success would undoubtedly beckon others to try producing their own headsets, failure would regress the industry for many more years.

  1. Many of whom have never built products and don’t appreciate the importance of shipping.

  2. Somehow the latest VR systems still celebrate releasing…Beatsaber.

  3. The iPhone followed a similar arc: the first iPhone was expensive and had no App Store, it took the iPhone 3G and 3GS to achieve mass adoption.

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