To me, VR and AR had always been somewhat of a cheesy gimmick. What would possibly have changed my mind in just 5 minutes? I found myself eagerly watching the big screen at NSLondon, an exclusive nomadic developer gathering with only 60 coveted spots free that often vanish within minutes of the waitlist opening. Did I mention there was free beer and pizza? I sat watching the Apple WWDC (World Wide Developer Conference) keynote – also known as iOS developer Christmas, that reveals new Apple software and teaches developers how to build amazing things with it months before it’s released. However, rarely do physical, shiny new products from Apple get announced at “dub-dub”, the developers’ abbreviation of the 8-syllable tongue twister that is dub-bull-yew-dub-bull-yew-dee-see. Believe me, it’s even tricker to say mid-bite when consuming beer and pizza.
But back to the event. Tim Cook had already introduced the new 15” Macbook Air an hour and a half prior. Impressive, sure, but nothing too ground-breaking – just another step forward in the MacBook’s evolution. With the event ending, it seemed like the perfect time to grab a slice of Franco Manca heaven. As I returned from a desk stacked high with 30 barely touched pizza boxes, a whiteboard in the corner of the room caught my eye. I laughed, glancing at the hopeful and unrealistic list of keynote predictions people had written. “Headset” had the most tallies next to it, but it hadn’t been announced this year. I settled back down, my attention now focused on the challenge of eating a giant slice of pizza with one hand without spilling the topping, all while holding a beer in the other and trying to avoid making unnecessary eye contact – a typical scene at a developer meetup.
In an instant the room fell silent. Tim Cook had just walked back on stage and uttered the following words with an almost holy reverence: “It’s already been a big day but… we do have one more thing!” he said with a calm Southern warmth in his voice, which contrasted with the tension of the moment. He paused. This was his “Steve Jobs moment” and a subtle nod to the legendary man. Steve had said that very phrase dozens of times as he had revealed devices that had changed the world. Now Tim Cook was poised to reveal another revolutionary device and cement his own legacy.
The screen went black.
Delicate synth notes danced around, giving everything a dream-like quality. Out of the inky blackness, a curved metal edge revealed itself and grew, an elegant glass structure faded into view to unveil the iconic Vision Pro.
Almost instantly the developers at the meetup were divided. Half of them let out a cheer and the other half a groan. I believe the mixed reactions were due to two reasons: everyone in the room had expected the announcement, and I feel that VR’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by Meta and the attempts that had gone on before it, as I’ll soon explain. Essentially VR had been done to death… it still wasn’t popular. How could Apple do any different? Still, the device looked so sleek, as if it had descended from heaven. Tim Cook had just revealed the Vision Pro but in all honesty, I wasn’t sold yet. The true significance of the Vision Pro wouldn’t dawn on me until five minutes later, during the demo of its software.
VR’s Rocky History – Virtually a Reality!
Taking virtual reality seriously has always been a challenge. Since ’80s cult classic films like Tron captivated audiences with visions of an entire 3D world inside a computer, reality has consistently fallen short of this dream. Nintendo tried its hand at a 3D console with the Virtual Boy in 1995. Google gave it a shot with Cardboard in 2015, providing many people with their first taste of VR. It left them feeling simultaneously impressed, motion sick, and frustrated by the lack of controls.
In the meantime, Sony’s PlayStation has ventured into VR territory. But let’s be honest, who hasn’t seen those hilarious YouTube videos of people bumbling into walls or each other while clutching those strange black torches with orbs on top? And am I the only one old enough to remember when everyone was telling us that VRML was going to take over the internet? Hundreds of companies and products have tried to do VR and fallen short of the dream.
The experience, with its unwieldy controllers, laggy, blurry displays and lack of physical awareness, feels less like stepping into the future and more like trying to hit a piñata blindfolded facing the wrong direction – lots of effort, little payoff, and much amusement to those watching you from afar.
To seemingly seal VR’s fate, Meta has been investing in virtual reality for over a decade, and the best use-case they’ve come up with, frankly, resembles a nightmarish Zoom call. Picture floating heads using cartoon graphics that look like a Fisher-Price video game, it’s hardly the image of serious business. I know that sounds harsh, but most people can barely manage the mute button on their Zoom calls, let alone present PowerPoint presentations in 3D. So, Mark Zuckerberg’s Matrix-like metaverse might just be a decade away, give or take. But here’s the thing – wasn’t “the Matrix” itself a digital prison designed to harvest human energy? It’s almost as if his vision is to create a digital expressive environment from which we never want to leave – a world where every tap, every expression, every interaction can be sold to harvest that financial energy known as ad impressions. Ironically, that sounds a lot like Facebook. Perhaps it’s just me but this doesn’t seem like a very appealing future. The recent cuts at Meta coupled with a recent $13.7 billion loss in their VR department hint that others feel the same. Maybe he needs to look up from that headset now and again! Unfortunately history is littered with individuals who were ahead of their era. Perhaps virtual reality is one of those advanced ideas still waiting for its moment.
AR: Promising but Exhausting
Augmented Reality (AR) is the half-way hybrid of virtual reality inspired by heads-up-displays from military jets. It shows promise but requires considerable understanding of the environment being viewed. Meta has recently been targeting users with ads that demonstrate how firefighters in the future will use AR to help fight fires, but I think firefighters would probably be more impressed with a fleet of fire-fighting drones that could swarm into an inferno and extinguish a room in minutes. The ad kind of got lost on me to be honest, I admit I don’t really understand what firefighting has to do with Meta and Oculus.
In its current incarnation on devices like iPhones and iPads, it’s been a clunky experience. Holding an iPad up to view a Lego model in front of you is awesome but it’s hard work after a while. It’s also confusing… Why do you want to see a non-existent model in front of you? Beyond watching some novelty animation, I find myself scanning between the AR app and the space in front of me trying to imagine the object in front of me when I could just buy some real Lego and see it in 3D all the time and save my mental energy. Instead, you have to continuously hold up something resembling a magnifying glass to peer and scan into this world. It works great for translating menus and previewing furniture but anything else is unfortunately hard work. It shows in the App Store too – there are lots of novelty apps with AR but I don’t think there are any that are game changing. A cockpit screen highlighting where an enemy fighter is on the horizon, I get… Placing furniture in a room is impressive but unless you make it easy to scan every product of their catalogue in 3D, companies just won’t use it.
Awkward Interactions – My AR Chess Game
When I worked on my ARKit chess game prototype back in 2017, I also found that tapping and interacting with AR just wasn’t a great experience when you’re using both hands to hold your device. It’s hard to hold the device steady with one hand, whilst trying to tap accurately with the other. That’s one of the biggest problems with VR and AR – the interactions are just awkward. From trying to hold a controller you can’t see to shakily tapping on a chess piece that is effectively 20 pixels high on screen. The whole process feels like it could be way better somehow.
Summing up the status quo of VR and AR
So, I think it’s understandable why, I feel many developers have written off VR. The disorientation caused by not being able to see your hands or a controller is a frustrating experience. Add to that the potential danger of not being able to see your environment too, and it becomes clear why these technologies still have a long way to go. AR has showed more promise but unless you have a 3D display, there doesn’t seem to be many uses for projecting a 3D object onto a 2D screen in your environment, especially considering the camera shake from holding it.
The Moment it Dawned on Me
Ok, enough of rubbishing VR, I wanted to set the stage for what had gone on before! Now let’s get back to the keynote… Tim Cook had just walked on stage, revealed the device and he then cuts to a demo of the product – cue visionOS.
For me, the moment I realised the Vision Pro would be a game changer was when Apple showed off its new operating system – visionOS. The slick demo where you could see your hands with natural gestures instead of strange controllers, where you could actually see the 3D content in front of you. That was when I knew this would be big. It blew away all my objections to VR and AR. No more thrashing around like you’re trying to hit a piñata! No more peering through an augmented world through a tiny magnifying glass! Here you could literally be immersed in it yet use the controllers you were born with – your eyes and your hands!
Apps added a whole new level to the 3D proposition. Rather than just having a very narrow experience playing a VR game or watching a VR film, here you could actually work… to actually interact with content right in front of you, rather than though the flat 2D projections of it we’re used to. Let’s think about this another way. The whole GUI (Graphical User Interface) concept of windows and files could be summed up as simply 2D representations of abstract 3D objects. For example, your computer today has “windows” for each app that floats over the top of each other, giving the impression of depth but it’s still condensed down to a 2D experience. Now I could have actual floating windows and I could do it over 270 degrees range in front of me, forget trying to juggle spatial awareness of pseudo-3D windows through a tiny little screen! I can’t be the only one who goes window-blind trying to manage them!
Giant Cinematic Screens
As the demo rolled on, something else hit me. Having a giant 10-foot-tall cinema screen in your house is unaffordable for most but here you could live that dream with spatial audio that promised to turn your film night into a cinematic Dolby surround sound experience, all from the comfort of your own sofa. Imagine it, nobody kicking your seat or nosily crunching popcorn. No neighbours to worry about disturbing. To top it off, if that wasn’t cool enough, imagine having a dinosaur pop through the screen into your living room in real 3D, (not the 3D-from-a-distance-box gimmick that 3D TV from 2012 gave us). Finally, it sounded like we were going to get a slice of the future we were all promised!
The First Mainstream 3D Camera
Now if that wasn’t enough, I think one of the biggest understated announcements was that Vision Pro has a 3D camera. If it works as smoothly as Apple suggests it does, then it could potentially be the first mainstream 3D camera. I say mainstream because I know 3D cameras exist, but I can’t yet walk into Argos and buy a 3D camera!
So what is the deal with a 3D camera? Photos are great but who hasn’t wanted to step into a wedding photo of their parents and for it to be so real they feel like they could reach out and touch the wedding bouquet. Or perhaps you might have had a family dog growing up? Imagine if you had taken a 3D photo of them as a puppy. Years later when they are long gone and you’re having a rough day, you could just step into that photo. Seeing them laying curled up on the sofa right in front of you as if no time had passed at all. Honestly, I think this could be one of the biggest selling points that no-one seems to be talking about!
Limitations Accessing Environment and Eye Data
The privacy controls in VisionOS seem like a double-edged sword. One hand the power of AR is being able to interpret the immediate environment so not being able to understand what a user is looking or understand the items in the room seems overly restrictive, on the other it’s incredibly reassuring. I feel like this is trying to head off a company like Meta from trying to generate personal heat maps and biometrics. Perhaps in future versions we may get special permissions or there might be a better way to give us access without enabling companies to send back reems of data on us.
Lack of Generative AI or Siri
I also felt the lack of mention of generative AI or a Siri upgrade was curious. Are Apple keeping it secret if it wasn’t ready yet or have they missed an opportunity? It would make the system so much easier to navigate with voice and if developers could harness it in their apps, then conversational computing would make interacting with the system considerably easier.
I think the Vision Pro will be a huge success when it launches next year because it blows many of the VR and AR constraints out of the water. It has been designed to address many of the issues that have previously hindered the widespread adoption these technologies. Making an operating system that allows you to use apps is a genius productivity move. I can see it feeling like a very natural extension of the desktop experience. Making the device use augmented or “mixed” reality helps give everything perspective – you get a sense of size for virtual objects, and you can watch animated scenes unfold, literally on your table top! Couple that with seeing and interacting with content in immersive real 3D and having a giant 3D cinema screen in your living room, it’s already a tempting prospect. If it delivers on these promises and provides a truly comfortable and intuitive user experience, it has the potential to be a significant step forward for the industry and possibly the modern world as we know it!
Who will it appeal to?
My gut reaction is that the people who will get the most from the Vision Pro are:
- Early adopters (interacting with 3D content like CAD software for 3D printing or scrubbing through video Minority Report style)
- Road warriors (working from your hotel room won’t seem quite the same again!)
- Gamers (playing the same table-top game with your friends halfway across the world or immersing yourself in a world)
- Film lovers (giant cinematic displays with spatial sound to rival a cinema)
- Home photographers (the 3D camera will capture amazing memories you can “step into”, much like every Dad from the ‘90s needed a video camera)
Justifying the Price
So, what about the huge price tag of $3,499? Well, if you still don’t think that it’s cheaper than having your own cinema and a 3D computer, consider this. Just like with the first iPhone launch, the Vision Pro with its 3D camera could also be a piece of history. For example, the first camera to make photography accessible to the masses was the “Kodak”. This fancy box of metal and wood with its shutter cocked by string cost $25 back in 1888 and you had to send the camera back with $10 where they printed your photos and reloaded it with new film. Adjusted for modern day inflation using 2023 prices that makes it $800 and $320 respectively. Suddenly, for a piece of nascent technology from the future, the Vision Pro seems very good value… especially when considering the potential rate of inflation over the next century!