Jun 6, 2023 - Technology

Mixed reality may have just had its iPhone moment

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Reporters check out Apple's Vision Pro mixed reality headset

Ina Fried/Axios

Apple showed enough of its Vision Pro headset on Monday to spark excitement — but it will probably take another year or so to know if we have truly entered a new era of "spatial computing," as the company calls it.

The big picture:: The vision Apple painted is tantalizing and expansive — but also incomplete and expensive.

Be smart: The device won't ship till "early next year." That means more time will pass between now and the Vision Pro's arrival than has already passed since the launch of ChatGPT till now.

Driving the news: Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the $3,499 Vision Pro at the company's worldwide developer conference Monday, painting a picture of a device that can seamlessly overlay the digital and real worlds.

  • Apple showed the headset fulfilling a range of tasks from playing movies and games to handling work tasks via multiple virtual monitors.
  • Demo videos showed headsetted users working and playing in physical living rooms and offices festooned with 2D app icons and browser windows and even the occasional 3D virtual object.

Yes, but: We've seen this vision before. Meta made a very similar case for its $1,499 Quest Pro as Apple is making for its headset.

  • But both reviewers and the marketplace concluded the technology wasn't ready for the kinds of office work and communications tasks the company envisioned.

The big picture: The real question is whether Apple has managed to succeed where others have so far failed.

  • Leave aside the hefty price tag for a moment — the tech industry has a long history of being able to drive down costs over time.
  • The more important issue is whether or not the device — along with the technology that underlies it — is truly ready for mainstream adoption.

Between the lines: Apple is known for picking the right moment when an emerging technology is just good enough to appeal to a wide group of customers.

  • Cook and his company clearly believe that moment has arrived for headsets — and they've packed this one with 12 cameras, 5 sensors, 6 microphones and two different processors.

The other puzzle pieces that are tough to evaluate before Apple lets the device loose for public use is are the human aspects — everything from how it feels and looks to whether the interface is natural enough to appeal beyond the world of geeks and gamers.

  • Vision Pro is a bet on the power of the headset to provide a sharp enough display for text and an immersive enough canvas for immersive movies.
  • It's also a gamble on the ability of touch, eye-tracking and voice to be sufficient to use the device without need for any type of handheld controller.

Flashback: This sense of timing is what has defined Apple's most successful products.

  • The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, for sure. It wasn't even the first one with a capacitive touch screen. The iPod wasn't the first hard-drive-based music player, either.
  • In both cases, Apple hit the market with just the right combination of a great interface wrapped around breakthroughs in hardware — the iPhone's responsive touch-screen, the iPod's thin disk drive.

My thought bubble: I have no doubt the hardware will only get better. Some day the Vision Pro will look incredibly crude and bulky, the way early iPods and iPhones do now. The question is whether it is good enough to usher in a new era.

What to watch: One early tell will be how avidly developers embrace what Apple has created.

  • If the Vision Pro really is the next big platform, it won't be just Safari and FaceTime that people are using, but all manner of apps — including new ones designed just for mixed reality.
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