News & Analysis

Vision Pro – Apple’s AR Headset Challenge

And already fanboys are shouting themselves hoarse because the headset is capable of showing life in the eyes and not that plastic feel one’s used to

Trust Apple to break the monotony and then propagate it to the fullest. The company’s much awaited (and much-maligned due to the inordinate delays) augmented reality headset is finally out. And those who were lucky to take a peek are all eyes for that one differentiator – one can see people’s eyes through the device. 

Okay, so depending upon which side of the fence you are, this could be either creepy or the best thing after sliced bread for headsets till date have given us a plastic feel to the eyes. And Apple took full advantage, saying “Your eyes are a critical indicator of connection and emotion,” the company said, adding this is why the headset displays one’s eyes when someone’s nearby.

A seven-year itch that may trouble competitors

It took seven long years for Apple to get the AR headset to the market. And by the looks of it, the wait was worth its while, at least at this juncture as its efficacy, usage and ultimate fate may well take some more time to be determined. Just so that you don’t miss the fun here, the company has named the device “Apple Vision Pro” – is there a hint there for competitors? 

For, the company has never called anything “Pro” before launching a vanilla version ahead of it. Be it the iPhone or the iPad, there’s always a generic version before the pro comes calling. In this case, Tim Cook’s marketing chutzpah has caused Apple to skip a step, possibly indicating that the rest of the world is vanilla anyway. 

Introducing the new headset at the WWDC 2023, Cook said, “With Vision Pro, you’re no longer limited by a display, a comment that somehow underscores the fact that the headset is more focused on AR than virtual reality and the company is now using the words “spatial computing” in order to push the envelope further.

Welcome to spatial computing, Apple style

And what does that actually mean? Apple wants us to believe that the experience would be akin to interacting with a computing UI, which puts it into the same bracket as a mouse or a trackpad helping users navigate through a screen.  Of course, there were some use-cases that played out but as is the case with other headsets, only time will tell us if it is worth the $3499. 

The device itself looks different as it is built on an aluminum frame and has a curved glass that one used to get on riding glasses years ago. A button can be used to capture images while there’s a digital crown for adjustments. A flexible strap holds the device in place while the visor extends from the display to the head carrying it so external light is blocked off. 

The audio pods appear on the sides which helps the spatial audio feature to create an illusion of various sound sources. It runs on an M2 chip and is paired with the new R1 chip that is used for video streaming. Displays are micro-OLED with 64 pixels and a three-element lens improves imaging from all angles. In case one wears glasses, Apple offers custom prescription glass inserts in collaboration with Zeiss. 

A feature called “EyeSight” (mark the use of the eye again) allows others to see one’s eyes making it non-opaque, though one really isn’t sure how it helps whether those watching you use an AR headset can see your eyes or not. Apple categorizes the product as mixed reality, but appears disinterested in the virtual reality bit of the business. 

It’s a toy for the office, not your home

What’s interesting though is that Apple believes that Vision Pro is an office device first and then one for entertainment. The company focuses on email instead of gaming as users can have a vision of their Mac desktop projected up front with all the controls built around. For one, this definitely rules out a touchscreen Mac – which we never believe in as it challenges the iPad. 

There is a 3D camera built in but the company seems to think 2D images are what the world would continue to use for now. So, one can capture spatial photos and videos with the movie theater option allowing playback using the illusion of a large screen. As for the gaming bit, it’s not an actual VR experience but a large screen projection for standard games. 

At nearly Rs.3 Lakhs, do we need it?

Disney is already on board as a content partner and would be available at launch some time next year. However, the company jumped a step and launched the VisionOS, thus killing that popular idea that Apple’s headset will sync with the iPadOS. There are a few health apps, one for creating music and another to gaze at stars.

Another factor that indicates Apple’s preference for pitching the Vision Pro as a workplace companion is the fact that Microsoft Office apps will be functional as would be teleconferencing  services such as Zoom and WebEX (and possibly Microsoft Teams). Where does that leave our dear old Google Meet? Looks like the twain may not meet any time soon.

Having seen the outcome after what was metaphorically the “seven-year itch”, our questions now are two-fold – (a) will they actually launch a regular version Apple Vision that is definitely not targeting enterprise buyers and (b) if not, should we start saving up now so that we pick up the headset when it launches at a nearly Rs.3 lakh price point next year? 

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