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Alternate Reality Headsets Get More Real

Apple’s new device intrigues the tech savvy. But will older adults pay the high price?

spinner image a man wearing an apple vision pro virtual reality headset and typing
Apple’s Vision Pro headset looks a bit like scuba gear but is what the company calls a 1-pound spatial computer on your head.

Virtual reality (VR) isn’t mainstream in a way companies pushing the technology have hoped.

The technology can transport you to places and allow you to experience what’s nearly impossible to visit in real life — the International Space Station, the depths of the ocean, the ruins of Peru’s Machu Picchu. But prices are high, setting the device up is difficult, and killer app titles are few.

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The biggest barrier: wearing a dorky headset around your noggin. It may not fit well or feel good. Some people get nauseated. 

These are the challenges for Apple’s Vision Pro goggles unveiled June 5 at the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The device goes on sale in 2024.

As with the Quest VR headsets from Facebook parent Meta, the company dominating alternate reality products, Apple must persuade people to wear a contraption around their face. What’s more, with a starting price of $3,499, buying a Vision Pro may feel like purchasing a Lamborghini. That’s more than triple the price of Meta’s top-of-the-line Quest Pro headset. 

Newest device mixes virtual, augmented reality

Apple is positioning Vision Pro as a first-of-its-kind “spatial computer,” for both the workplace and watching the latest installment of Avatar in 3D projected on a virtual 100-foot 4K screen in your living room. That was part of the demonstration I had at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

spinner image a close up of the apple vision pro virtual reality headset product
The Apple Vision Pro will go on sale in 2024.

The product mixes VR, where the outside world is almost completely shut out, and augmented reality (AR), allowing digital objects to appear in and around your real surroundings. It’s what some call mixed reality. 

Vision Pro has its own operating system, called visionOS, and will have its own app store. During keynote remarks at the developers conference, Apple chief executive Tim Cook described Vision Pro as “the first Apple product you look through and not at.”

The hype around Vision Pro evokes memories of Apple’s original 2007 iPhone, which like this product reveal came months before anyone could buy the device. That initial iPhone was expensive, too.

The original iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone and had no guarantee of success. But it transformed the smartphone market and led to the development of Androids.

Will history repeat itself? That’s impossible to predict. But Apple’s spatial computer could lift all boats, including Meta’s Quest 3, starting at $499.99 and due this fall, and perhaps products from Sony or others. 

spinner image Meta Quest 3 mixed reality headset
Meta’s Quest 3, announced June 1 as a ‘mixed reality’ headset, costs hundreds not thousands and will debut in the fall.

Older people are embracing alternate realities

Some older adults are familiar with VR. Through companies such as MyndVR and Rendever, some use VR to overcome the physical, mental and social challenges that come with aging.

They tap into the technology to virtually attend concerts, exercise, face phobias, perform physical therapy, play games, rekindle memories, travel to far-flung destinations and connect socially, sometimes in retirement communities.

“The idea of virtually going somewhere seems like a poor stand-in,” says journalist Scott Stein, an editor-at-large at CNET who covers what’s now known as the metaverse. “But I think there are moments in some people’s lives where they can’t go somewhere or they have a memory of something. And some of those headsets can allow that type of either telepresence or connecting with people.”

Your hands and eyes become cursor, mouse

The preproduction Vision Pro weighs roughly a pound and carries a cord to connect to a rechargeable battery Apple says will last about two hours and can slip into a back pocket. The device also can be plugged into a wall outlet.

You can see your real-world surroundings through it. It’s portable enough to take on a plane, but envisioning people walking down a city street wearing it is difficult.

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The product is compatible with a wireless Apple mouse or keyboard, but the main way to control Vision Pro is with your voice, eyes and hand gestures. Your eyes become a cursor. When you stare at an icon or tiles that float in a room, you can virtually select one and use a pinch-like gesture to click.

Using this combination of eyes and hands, you can open apps and pictures, plus scroll and drag things around. Numerous windows can be open at the same time and projected anywhere in a room.

I mastered the gestures quickly, though people with physical challenges as they age may find it more difficult. Everything looked good. What didn’t feel so good was the pressure on my nose, even after Apple swapped one headset for another.

I was reminded that what was unveiled isn’t final, and Apple will have different size headbands at launch. The hardware is glass and aluminum, outfitted with Apple’s chips and super-speedy cameras. It’s packed with 23 million pixels, the dots that make up an image, across two displays. Apple says it exceeds the quality of a 4K TV.

Experiencing FaceTime, encountering dinosaurs

If someone emerges in your field of view while you’re wearing the headset, you can see that. That person will also know when you’re looking back through a feature called EyeSight. The glass on the front of the goggles becomes transparent. If you’re not paying attention, the other person sees your focus is elsewhere. 

Vision Pro leverages apps familiar to Apple users, including the Safari web browser, where text was easy to read, and FaceTime. Third-party apps also will be part of the experience. At the conference, Disney honcho Bob Iger mentioned that Disney+ streaming will be available and shared video of how Mickey Mouse might jump off the screen and onto a chair in your room.

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During my demo, I had a FaceTime chat with an Apple employee who was in a life-size tile. You’re not looking at the actual person but a 3D digital representation through a machine learning feature known as Persona. You two might collaborate on a project in another window, perhaps using Apple’s Freeform app.

“Spatial” audio is also part of the experience, sound emanating from wherever a tile is in the room. You can also use Apple’s Bluetooth AirPod Pros.

I saw a virtual butterfly land on my hand; had breathtaking views of Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak; sat in a private studio with singer Alicia Keys; and was nose-to-nose with a curious but menacing dinosaur. Far less threatening was immersion inside a calming meditation app.

Can the headset be shared?

Beyond price, Apple “needs to prove the platform out, and they need developers to take advantage and create apps and do wonderful things we’ll enjoy,” says tech analyst Ben Bajarin, CEO of the Creative Strategies firm in San Jose. “But right now, just from a pure technology standpoint, it’s really cool.”

Another open question: How easily will you be able to share Vision Pro with family and friends? If you wear prescription eyeglasses, you may need a custom Zeiss optical insert, another expense.

As part of the product set-up, your face is scanned similarly to setting up FaceID facial recognition on an iPhone. Apple says a guest mode lets you share that dinosaur experience with your grandkid while keeping everything else on the device private. Details remain vague.

Because of the high cost and personalized set-up, it is difficult to imagine how an assisted living center could purchase multiple units to share with residents, which happens now with other VR hardware.

So Vision Pro is an impressive work in progress. After all these years, the same can be said of virtual reality.

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