I assumed this external battery pack meant the headset itself would feel as light as a feather, but it still felt hefty. Once I adjusted both a bigger backstrap and the top soft strap, I went through another calibration process, which concluded with an audible chime of approval. (Still, a light orb appeared in the middle distance throughout my demo.)
The Vision Pro interface is intuitive—within a few gestures and taps on the digital crown, I had it down. External cameras obviate the need for hand controllers, because the device sees your hands. And internal eye-tracking cameras see where your eyes are looking, so it knows which app you want to open or close.
In home mode, a virtual dock of Apple apps floated in front of me. I could still see the real-life living room surroundings. An AR home screen of Apple apps in AR is as vanilla as it sounds. The app containers themselves were certainly not reinvented, and their icons were not little grabble globules or anything else that conferred volume. They were just … there.
The more interesting part was how I interacted with them. I opened Photos by pinching my forefinger and thumb together, scrolled through photos by “grabbing” each image and swiping to the left, expanded panoramic photos by staring and tapping at the “Expand” option. I scrolled web 2D pages in Safari using my eyes and a couple fingers. I opened Messages, too, though audio interactions aren’t ready yet apparently, and I wasn’t able to record or send a Message. Most of the content I saw wasn’t fully volumetric, nor could I pinch the apps to scale up, or bring myself into them. An Apple representative has said, though, that app makers can build these experiences in the future.
FaceTime would be, in theory, an opportunity to create an extremely human experience in mixed reality headsets. In my demo, it didn’t achieve this. The internal cameras within the headset are capable of capturing and regurgitating your face in digital form, a hyper-realistic digital twin that appears before the person you’re chatting with. In my FaceTime demo I chatted with the digital twin of an Apple employee who cheerfully talked me through some of these features. But she felt disembodied. She was real, but she was also not. I’m afraid I don’t even recall her name.
While using some apps, though, the room dimmed around me, which is one of the more compelling parts of Vision Pro. It either auto-magically dims when you’re using certain apps, or it can be manually dimmed using the little dial on your headset. Tap into one of the virtual “Environments” Apple seeded on the demo unit, and the Scandinavian normcore living room disappeared around me. Open Apple TV+ and air-tap into a stereoscopic video reel, then select “Cinematic” mode, and you might as well be in the Alamo Drafthouse. This is what Apple seems to think is the essence of making this a platform versus a product: You don’t have to choose between AR and VR. Your app can be anything you want it to be.
Vision Pro shone in the entertainment category, especially because it was dynamic. I watched a clip of Avatar 2 in 3D. In a teaser of a new dinosaur-focused series from director Jon Favreau, a dinosaur stomped dangerously close to where I stood in the room, based on the positioning of my sensor-filled headset. A butterfly fluttered around the room before landing on my outstretched finger. These experiences could absolutely occur in other AR or VR headsets. The difference is that Apple has the ability to entice Hollywood directors and app makers to build them.
Apple’s Vision Pro headset has the potential to eventually mainstream AR in a way that other face computers haven’t, simply because it’s Apple. Already developers are expressing excitement around the headset. And again, at $3,500, the first units of Vision Pro will likely be snapped up by developers and gadget lovers with disposable income.
But Vision Pro is also unlike almost every other modern Apple product in one crucial way: It doesn’t disappear. In fact, it does the opposite. It rests on your face and shields your eyes, sensory organs that are a crucial part of the lived human experience. The same is true of every other heads-up display in the world, whether it’s a pair of AR glasses, an industrial-focused headset, or fully immersive VR goggles. The experience can be remarkable and surreal, for sure; but it requires a suspension of disbelief and a sacrifice of autonomy. Even Apple can’t out-design its way out of what is fundamentally an obtrusive technology.
But every successful Apple product of the past two decades has disappeared into our lives in some way—the iPhone into our pockets, the iPad into our purses, the Apple Watch living on our wrists and the AirPods resting in our ears. Wearing the Vision Pro for hours on end will call into question what it means to compute, but also, what it means to live in the real world. My forehead felt cool when I took the Vision Pro off after around 30 minutes, a testament to Apple’s considerate design. But my face also breathed with relief, the way it has after using other heads up displays. The air feels more real out here.