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With Vision Pro, Apple does less but will accomplish more.

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Tim Cook used the term "augmented reality" just once during the unveiling of Apple's Vision Pro headset, and even that was one time too many. The company's coming Vision Pro headset isn't really an augmented reality or virtually reality device as much as a simpler head mounted display (HMD) that uses gaze, voice and gesture to control what's displayed by it. Apple calls its "spatial computing" and it's more the future of the Mac than something entirely new. I applaud that.


Augmented reality and virtual reality are concepts that have generated almost no currency with consumers on a road littered with failures and letdowns. The terms themselves are cryptic and few consumers know the difference between AR (augmenting the real world around you) and VR (immersing you in an alternate digital world).


With Vision Pro, Apple follows a proven playbook: Let first movers probe the market at great cost and churn, then launch a product that plays the hits, doing just the thing(s) that consumers have shown they can grasp. The iPod was launched as simply 1,000 songs in your pocket; The iPhone was launched as the all touch-screen phone, lacking 3G or even copy & paste. Simple, clear, less.

The sensors and processors inside Vision Pro will be inside baseball to all but developers. Consumers will just know that it's a thing on your face that liberates displays and lets you control them intuitively.

The Vision Pro headset may initially attract those who would like to ditch their desk full of monitors for a headset that creates numerous virtual monitors and indexes them to where your eyes are pointing. Or for Zoom jockeys who'd like a more spatial, immersive meeting than the Hollywood Squares motif. And after work, the best seat in the house to watch TV will be the impossibly large screen generated by Vision Pro.


These are three solid, repeatable, multi hour use cases, though they don't change the world; That's up to developers to invent once a critical mass of Vision Pro users emerges. Rather, Vision Pro's early success will be built on it not being more than we can initially digest. A lot of tech innovators get so deep in their development process they look track of this immutable rule of the market.


My CNET colleague Scott Stein (who spends a lot of time sampling digital headgear) lists fitness applications, watch/phone/tablet integration and haptic feedback as notable omissions in the Vision Pro. They may arrive between now and launch, but will their absence really change the initial adoption curve? There's already plenty here for consumers to digest.


None of which means the success of Vision Pro is a given: Apple hasn't had a real flop since Lisa and Newton, both part of an Apple so ancient it may as well have been a different company, but all tech leaders eventually fumble.


That said, I assess Vision Pro this way:


Encouraging

  • The next big thing in big screen viewing or gaming.

  • The potential future of the desktop, which is sorely in need of remodeling.

  • A nice update to virtual meetings (though its use of my avatar instead of my live video image adds a big asterisk.)

  • Comprehensible by the average tech consumer.


Concerning

  • At first Vision Pro will be derivative, mostly allowing us to do things we already do in new ways, not new things per se.

  • We naturally dislike wearing tech on our faces. The last big hit in this category was bifocals, 1784.

  • Doesn't work with prescription glasses, offers separate Zeiss correction lenses.

  • Audio is emitted via tiny near field speakers. Don't sit next to me on a plane.

  • Tethered battery pack. Tethering anything is always a clumsy workaround.

  • $3,499. But capabilities will expand as this price shrinks over the next 3 versions.


On the fence

  • Apple is making a lot of Vision Pro's ability to capture and display 3D imagery as well as being a platform for existing commercial 3D movies, one of recent history's great tech flops. There might be something to this, especially if enough people eventually own Vision Pro or another HMD that is compatible with its photos and videos. 3D photos won't catch on if they're aren't widely shareable.

Make no mistake, we are overdue for something to supersede the current world of rigid, flat displays that aren't indexed to our gaze. I think that future is rooted in augmented reality, which Vision Pro may set the table for.

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