Apple’s Gamble on High-End Virtual Reality (and Why I Want One) – Ryan Schultz

Brian Tong wearing the Apple Vision Pro (a still capture from his Apple Vision Pro unboxing video)

As I mentioned in passing in my last blogpost, I am eager to get my hot little hands on the latest Holy Grail in the world of virtual reality/augmented reality/mixed reality/extended reality (VR/AR/MR/XR): the Apple Vision Pro wireless headset, which began shipping to American consumers on February 2nd, 2024.

Alas, there is no word yet on when we non-Americans will be able to order this device, although at least one VR YouTuber, Brian Tong, has heard (via his unofficial, internal sources) that Apple is planning to expand access to the U.K. and Canada next, perhaps shortly before or during the 2024 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, which is usually held the first or second week of June.

Brian’s YouTube channel has been full of many helpful videos about the Apple Vision Pro, including this unboxing video of a pre-release version, where he unpacked the various components in the Apple Vision Pro package like a giddy schoolkid on Christmas morning:

In an interesting move, Apple refers to this device as spatial computing, avoiding any mention of virtual reality, mixed reality, or any of the other terms which have usually been tossed around while talking about other headsets. Also, I find it quite telling that nowhere will you find mention of the now-often-maligned concept of the metaverse, especially after being embraced by numerous crypto/NFT projects which went nowhere, plus Facebook’s much-ballyhooed rebrand into Meta landing with a bit of a dull thud and a shrug among consumers. As fellow metaverse blogger Wagner James Au wrote on his blog last week:

With Meta’s latest earnings report published this week, we find out the company has now burned invested $42 billion on building the Metaverse, with little to show for that: Its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds has less than an estimated 500,000 monthly active users, while sales of its Quest VR headset line (a metaverse peripheral) remain steadfastly small.

While Wagner is certainly more pessimistic about virtual reality than I am, it’s clear that VR headsets are not exactly flying off shelves, especially when compared to the blockbuster sales of cellphones, tablets, and gaming consoles. Andrew Williams of Forbes reported last October:

Meta has sold more than 20 million headsets to date, 18 million of which were the Meta Quest 2.

The Quest 3’s predecessor was highly successful, considering VR isn’t really a mainstream proposition in the way standard game consoles are. But the market has not expanded in the way Meta clearly hoped.

Back in May, the Washington Post reported a significant proportion of Quest users were letting the headset gather dust after just a few weeks.

The somewhat tepid success of most VR/AR/MR/XR/metaverse ventures to date are clearly reasons why Apple has focused, in its usual savvy marketing campaign, on the fact that the Apple Vision Pro is intended to be a wearable personal computer (essentially, an iPad for your face). Apple has announced in a Feb. 1st news release that over 600 new apps built specifically for the Vision Pro were available to American consumers at launch, plus “more than 1 million compatible apps available on the App Store to deliver a wide array of breakthrough experiences.”

The Vision Pro the first completely new category of device launched by Apple since the Apple Watch in 2015, and many people (myself included) have been keen to see what Apple, with its history of launching well-designed products, would come up with. As I often say on my blog, A rising tide lifts all boats, and Apple’s entry into this market has the potential to shake things up quite a bit, especially since they have taken pretty much the opposite tack from Meta, by focusing on an expensive, ultra-high-end device as their first product.

And yes, I do mean expensive. On the U.S. Apple Vision Pro website, the three main models of the Vision Pro are for sale:

  • 256 GB of storage (starting at US$3,499);
  • 512 GB (starting at US$3,699); and
  • 1 TB (terabyte, or 1,024 GB; starting at US$3,899).

So the one-terabyte Apple Vision Pro of my fondest dreams and darkest desires comes out to $5,259.17 in Canadian dollars—and that’s before sales taxes!

Many mainstream media and tech news reviewers prepared print and video reviews of the Apple Vision Pro, using pre-release review units provided by the company. These reviews were embargoed until the official release of the headset in early February, when they landed in a big media splash (Apple has deep pockets to spend on advertising, and has always done excellent marketing for their products).

Brian Tong, the YouTuber whom I mentioned earlier, has put out a very user-friendly, comprehensive one-hour review video:

Nilay Patel of The Verge put out the following half-hour video as part of its extensive print review of the Apple Vision Pro, which did not shy away from talking about what he saw as some problems with the device, describing it succinctly as “magic…until it’s not.”

Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal (archived version) took a slightly more unusual, whimsical approach to her review of the Apple Vision Pro. Joanna wore the review unit for a full day, even taking it to out to a ski chalet and wearing it out on skis, on a closed-off bunny hill! (Something definitely not recommended, by the way; DO NOT DO THIS.) Here’s her ten-minute video, which also shows her wearing the Vision Pro while preparing a recipe, and even setting up multiple timers hovering over the different pots on her stovetop:

And yes, one of the many features of the Apple Vision Pro is that you can set up displays anywhere, as demonstrated by in this mind-bending one-minute YouTube video by Himels Tech, as he walks around his house showing off his set-up:

There are many other reviews out there, but these four video reviews between them cover pretty much all the bases, so if you watch all of them, you’re up to speed!

The eye-watering price is not the only hurdle to be overcome by whoever wants to possess one of these Holy Grail devices! Unlike every other VR headset I have purchased, I will not be able to wear my glasses underneath the face-fitting, ski-goggle-like design. So I have two options: to get soft contact lenses (which I have not worn for a couple of decades), or to buy magnetically-attached prescription lens inserts from Apple’s partner, Zeiss. According to an Apple Support article:

To purchase ZEISS Optical Inserts for Apple Vision Pro, you need a legible comprehensive prescription. Here’s the information your comprehensive prescription should contain:

Your distance correction and near correction needs, indicated separately but on the same prescription sheet. This is known as the full manifest refraction. 

An expiration date, which should not be expired.

Your date of birth, your full name, and your prescriber’s license number and signature.

Intermediate distance, task distance, or computer distance should not be part of that prescription, and contact lens prescriptions are not accepted. If you’re not sure if your prescription is comprehensive, consult an eye care provider and reference the description in this article.

ZEISS Optical Inserts are available for the vast majority of corrections, including for customers who normally use progressive or bifocal lenses. A very small percentage of people have a prism value added to their glasses prescription. At this time, ZEISS cannot manufacture ZEISS Optical Inserts based on a prescription containing prism value. If you have a prism value, it is labeled on your prescription and noted separately from sphere, cylinder, axis, and ADD values. If you’re not sure if your prescription includes prism, consult with an eye care provider.

Depending on your prescription, your vision needs might not be met through ZEISS Optical Inserts.

Annoyingly, there doesn’t seem to be any publicly-available chart to give the ranges of presecription lenses which they will support, instead asking you to fill out a form with your prescription details, and promising that they’ll get back to you as quickly as possible:

So it looks as though I am going to have to go see my eye doctor first, then submit my prescription, then cross my fingers that they will support my combination of nearsightedness and astigmatism (not to mention my need for progressive lenses!). Honestly, it all sounds rather discouraging and disheartening.

But perhaps my apprehension about the Vision Pro not working for my elderly eyes is misplaced, because even blind people are finding the device to be useful! Check out this mind-blowing YouTube Shorts video by James Rath, who tests out some of the accessibility features and settings, James says that he can actually see more clearly with the Vision Pro, than without! This device could open up a whole new use case for the visually impaired.

So, yes, I am very eager to get my hands on an Apple Vision Pro sometime this year! I don’t want to wait; I want to experience this envelope-pushing product as soon as possible. I haven’t been this excited about a headset since the Oculus Rift back in 2016. So please stay tuned as I report on my odyssey to acquire the new Holy Grail of spatial computing!

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