I wasn't expecting Apple's Vision headset to blow my mind. It did.
From the first moment I pinched my two fingers together to "click" on the Safari icon that floated in front of a mock-living room wall, I realized that Apple's Vision Pro isn't just the latest in headsets: It's the first headset that I can imagine capturing the public's heart.
Why it matters: The world of virtual and augmented reality is littered with devices that never delivered on their promise. Apple's entry could be the first where the main objection is "it costs too much" rather than "why would I want it?"
I spent about half an hour in a demo at Apple Park on Tuesday and left wanting more time with the device, which goes on sale "early next year" and starts at $3,499.
- What's impressive about the Vision Pro isn't the set of tasks it can do: Web browsing, messaging, playing standard and immersive movies. It's how elegantly and intuitively it does them.
How it works: The first thing I had to do was get outfitted for a set of magnetic prescription lens inserts. Because I am severely nearsighted in my left eye, the lenses Apple had on hand didn't fully correct. However, I was still able to read text on a Web page and didn't feel like I was missing out. (You can't just wear your own glasses with Apple's headset, unlike some others.)
- Putting on the headset and doing some initial calibrations was quick and smooth. The headset itself feels lighter than many others, but it's not so light that you don't know you are wearing it.
- A simple press of the "digital crown" (a feature borrowed from Apple Watch) brings up a menu of apps and options. Simply looking at an item highlights it. To click, you pinch your fingers — wherever they may be, including resting comfortably on your leg.
The mix of virtual windows and the real-world environment felt seamless in a way I've never experienced before, in either a lab demo or on a shipping product.
- Apple has taken a novel approach to shifting between augmented and virtual reality, changing what has been a binary option into a spectrum of choices.
- Even when you are taking in a fully immersive experience, a person entering your "real" space may appear in the display.
Other devices support eye-tracking, voice commands and hand tracking. But Apple has put them together so deftly that it's eliminated the need for any other controls. (You can add a keyboard and mouse for heavy browsing or office work.)
- The eye tracking worked flawlessly, each time allowing me to select exactly the object I was aiming at. Similarly, the gestures for pinching and scrolling are simple and feel effortless.
- I didn't get to attempt any super-precise actions, though, such as selecting a portion of text — which might still be easier with a mouse and keyboard.
My short time with the Safari browser and other apps felt similar to using them on a computer, in the sense that they were both easy and natural.
- VR makers have long touted the potential for users to enjoy multiple large virtual monitors, but Apple has created what felt like the first device I'd want to use that way.
Be smart: Wearing the headset and interacting with people was easy and natural for me. That doesn't mean it will be easy and natural for the headset-less to interact with a Vision Pro user.
- Apple's novel design offers a digital representation of the headset wearer's eyes on the front of the goggles, but it remains to be seen how well that limits potential awkwardness.
A highlight reel of video content showed off the Vision Pro's chops as a media device with immersive clips from the worlds of sports, music and nature.
- In one clip it felt like Alicia Keys was singing right to me, while in another, I felt like I was on the field as a major league ballplayer let a throw drift just past his glove.
- As a sports fan, I love the prospect of getting views I couldn't have even with the best seat — but in the past, low image quality has proven too great a tradeoff.
- Movies filmed in 3D — like a clip from the latest "Avatar" that Apple showed during the demo— are especially well-suited to the device.
I also got to view, but not take, the unique 3D "spatial" photos and videos that the device can capture. The spatial video of a kid blowing out their candles at a birthday party shows how you could summon a special memory to life — but to capture that, someone would have to have been wearing a headset at the original event.
Of note: The demos didn't include any gaming — which has been the main thing most people have actually used VR devices to do.
- Apple has promised it will have more than 100 games available at the device's launch. Most existing iOS apps should run as well, the company promises.
My thought bubble: I've been fortunate to witness a few breakthrough moments in tech — from the launch of the iPod and iPhone to Microsoft's original multitouch Surface tabletop PC. As with the first time I used those devices, experiencing the Vision Pro made me feel, "Yes, that's an experience I want to have."
Yes, but: While I got to control the interactions, the experiences were handpicked by Apple, so there could well be rough edges that Apple elegantly steered around.
- Also, a half-hour demo wasn't long enough to judge how it would feel to use the device for a long time or whether it delivers on its promised two hours of battery life.
The bottom line: The real test of the Vision Pro will come once it's in the hands of thousands of people who discover its flaws and limits — and also put it to uses Apple hasn't yet imagined.