Jan 29, 2024 - Technology

Apple's impressive Vision Pro headset still faces uphill battle

Photo illustration of an apple wearing Apple's Vision Pro headset.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A second look at Apple's $3,500 Vision Pro headset confirms it's more powerful and visually impressive as well as easier to use than anything else in the market — but still faces problems with its high cost, battery life and bulk.

Why it matters: Apple's biggest release in years, which will show up in stores this week, is a key test of the company's ability to enter new categories in the Tim Cook era.

Hands-on: A second opportunity to check out the Vision Pro on Friday reminded me of all the things I enjoyed the first time around last June: The impeccable eye-tracking creates a smoother user experience than any other headset I've tried. The pass-through mixed reality feels natural — at least for the person wearing the headset.

  • A meditation experience was relaxing, and the brief entertainment environments, such as being in a rehearsal space with Alicia Keys or playing in a field with dinosaurs, were vivid and enjoyable.
  • I also got to try out a few things I hadn't seen before, including visiting new virtual environments, like Maui's Haleakalā, and using both a virtual keyboard and Siri to enter text.

Yes, but: It's hard to know what, if anything, will be the Vision Pro's killer use case.

  • The sports clips showed the promise that VR could have in giving you the best seat in the house — or even, as Apple's trailer promises, a seat money can't buy, such as right behind first base at a baseball game or behind the net at a soccer match.
  • However, it's unlikely anyone will be broadcasting with that kind of option any time soon — and Apple's initial market of a few hundred thousand headsets is probably too small to attract much league or network interest.

Apple expects more than 1 million apps at launch, though many of those are just iPhone or iPad apps allowed to work on the headset.

  • Some key app makers, like Disney+, have customized their apps for the headset — while others, like Netflix, aren't even allowing their mobile apps to run on the Vision Pro.

The catch: The challenge of breaking headset-based virtual and augmented reality out of the gaming niche and into a mainstream hit has already bedeviled Meta and others.

  • Apple's ambitions are grander, and it prefers to call the Vision Pro a "spatial computing" device.
  • But Apple faces the same problems with battery life, bulk and cost as its predecessors. It's hoping that, even if the Vision Pro can't answer the "Why do I need this?" question, the headset will win buyers with its wow factor.

The big picture: The Vision Pro debut comes as most of the industry is putting its energy into artificial intelligence.

  • And unlike mixed reality, which relies on advances in miniaturization, optics and battery life that take some time, AI is advancing at a rapid clip.

Between the lines: And yet, Apple's entry could also help Meta.

  • Meta hopes to be the Android to Apple in VR, as the Wall Street Journal noted on Sunday.
  • One of the many motivations for Meta's huge early investment in VR is to have more control over the next computing platform than it did over the smartphone.
  • Generally, when a company argues that the entry of a well-heeled rival will "validate the category," it's just trying to make itself feel better — but there is some truth here.
  • Playing Android to Apple in this new market would be a significant step up for Meta, which — like Amazon and Microsoft — has been on the outside looking in at the smartphone market. All three of these firms tried and failed to launch homegrown smartphones.
  • Also, when Google introduced Android, it was scrambling to catch up with Apple — whereas Meta is already ahead in the VR headset game. It's the current volume leader with its Quest family, and its headsets sell for a fraction of the price of the Vision Pro.

What's next: My second time with Vision Pro was an impressive guided tour, not a chance to live with the headset.

  • That will be coming soon for anyone willing to pay the steep bill.
  • The device's real test will be in the hands of its first users — and in the reactions of the people around them who aren't wearing Vision Pros.
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