The Apple Vision Pro Is a Marvel. But Who Will Buy It?

The Apple Vision Pro Is a Marvel. But Who Will Buy It?

Last week, I was ushered by an Apple employee through a security gate, past a manicured lawn, down a flight of stairs and into a tastefully decorated faux living room inside the Steve Jobs Theater to get a preview of the company’s new Vision Pro headset.

My demo, like the early tours of the Vision Pro given to other reporters, was far from exhaustive. I spent about 45 minutes wearing the device under the supervision of two watchful Apple employees, who guided me through a curated demo while I sat on a midcentury gray sofa next to them. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos or video of the device itself or take one home for further testing.

Given how limited my trial was, I can’t in good conscience tell you whether the Vision Pro is worth the $3,500 — yes, three thousand five hundred United States dollars — it costs. (That price doesn’t include tax or the cost of any add-on accessories, such as the $100 Zeiss lens inserts that are required if you wear prescription glasses or contacts, or the $200 travel case.)

I also can’t say if the Vision Pro solves what I call the “six-month problem.” With many V.R. headsets I’ve tried — and I’ve tried a lot — the initial novelty fades, and minor annoyances, like blurry graphics or a lack of compelling apps, start to pile up. Six months later, invariably, every headset I test ends up in my closet collecting dust.

But I can say two things about my first impressions of the Vision Pro.

First, in many ways, the Vision Pro is an impressive product, one that has been many years and billions of dollars in the making. It’s leaps and bounds better than the previous best V.R. headsets on the market, the Meta Quest series, when it comes to its eye-tracking and gesture-based controls, the quality of its displays and the way it combines immersive virtual experiences with the ability to see the world around you, a feature known as “pass-through.”

I was primed for skepticism going into my demo — Apple’s aggressive stage-managing made me wonder what the company was trying to hide — but there were several moments while wearing the Vision Pro when I felt genuine wonder, and a feeling of being present for what could turn out to be a major shift in computing.

The second thing to say about the Vision Pro is that even after trying it, I still have no idea whom or what this thing is supposed to be for. At $3,500, it’s not a device for the masses, or even the mass affluent. It’s a big, honking statement piece — a status symbol for your face.

Which isn’t to say the Vision Pro isn’t compelling, or that I didn’t enjoy testing it. It is, and I did. But after my experience, I have a better idea of the kinds of people who might be tempted to buy one now, and who might be better off waiting.

If you’re one of the estimated 40 percent of Americans who have never tried a virtual reality headset, the Vision Pro is likely to blow your mind.

If this is your first foray into V.R., it’s really worth getting a Vision Pro demo at an Apple store once they go on sale Friday, or cajoling a friend into letting you use his or hers. (V.R. headsets, like boats, are often better to borrow than buy.)

Early V.R. headsets were plagued by problems like blurry displays, headache-inducing motion tracking, cheap controllers and the fact that you couldn’t do anything else while wearing them.

Apple has solved a lot of these problems, starting with the Vision Pro’s displays: two screens roughly the size of postage stamps. They’re amazing: crisp, bright, detailed. When you look at them, you feel like you’re peering out of your eyes, not into a screen.

I was also impressed by the Vision Pro’s immersion toggle, which allows you to see more of what’s happening in the room around you by turning a dial on top of the device.

Unlike other V.R. systems, the Vision Pro doesn’t require controllers. To navigate, you just look at an icon. Then you pinch your thumb and a finger together to select it. The learning curve isn’t steep, but I needed a few minutes to get the hang of it.

Wearing the Vision Pro is comfortable-ish. I say “ish” because while it felt fairly light on my head and didn’t give me a headache the way other V.R. headsets have, I did feel some slight discomfort while my eyes adjusted after putting it on and taking it off. (A colleague who also got a demo compared it to the feeling you get when you leave a dark movie theater on a sunny day.)

I don’t know if these are temporary problems, or if I’d acclimate to them. But they weren’t bad enough to ruin the experience.

After a short setup process, my Apple minder guided me to the Photos app on the Vision Pro. There, I found several examples of what Apple is calling “spatial photos and videos.” These are made using a three-dimensional camera that is built into the Vision Pro itself. (The newest high-end iPhones, the iPhone 15 Max and Max Pro, can also take them.)

I’ve been excited about — and disappointed by — the promise of 3-D photos and videos for years. I’m a bit of an obsessive camera dad, and I’ve long awaited the day when 3-D images are good enough to make me feel that I’m actually reliving a family memory, rather than looking at a grainy snapshot.

Looking at spatial photos and videos on the Vision Pro, I realized that moment had arrived. The photos and videos in Apple’s demo — which included a scene from a kid’s birthday party, a video of a mom making bubbles for her daughter and a family gathered around a kitchen table — were gorgeous, and the depth added by the 3-D camera made them uncannily realistic. To my eyes, it felt no different from being part of the scene myself. I got a lump in my throat thinking about rewatching my son’s first steps this way years from now.

Not everyone is so sentimental. But Apple’s spatial photos and videos got me by the heartstrings, and I imagine other camera-obsessed parents will almost be able to justify the Vision Pro’s steep price tag for the home movie potential alone.

I was less impressed when it came to work-related tasks.

Apple has billed the Vision Pro as a desk worker’s dream: a spatial computer that allows you to create your perfect desk setup and take it with you anywhere. Users can open any number of virtual windows, resize and move them around in space, and combine them with a real-world Mac display.

I didn’t get to try writing a column or hosting a podcast in the Vision Pro. But I did try some basic web browsing and typing, and found the experience underwhelming.

The pinch-and-drag gesture you use to scroll on a Vision Pro was a pain compared with using a regular mouse or track pad. And typing on the Vision Pro’s virtual keyboard was a slow, clumsy mess. (Just typing into Safari took me the better part of a minute.) Anyone who wants to get real work done on the Vision Pro will most likely need to connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which kind of defeats the portability part of the pitch.

Video calls may not be much better. I wasn’t able to test FaceTime on the Vision Pro, or third-party video conferencing apps like Zoom, but other reviewers have given Personas — Apple’s attempt to create a lifelike avatar that can stand in for you on video calls — a thumbs down.

I did get to try one workplace tool that wasn’t part of the official demo, a version of Keynote, Apple’s slide show app, which lets you rehearse a presentation in a simulated conference room or on a virtual stage. But it felt more like a gimmick than a real productivity enhancer.

Apple is also trying to make the Vision Pro appeal to fans of immersive movies and games.

My demo included several movie clips, including a scene from “Super Mario Brothers 3-D,” a trailer for “Star Wars” and some Apple-produced clips of various immersive films, like footage from a soccer game and of a scuba diver swimming with sharks. I also saw an interactive video in which a butterfly landed on my finger and a dinosaur appeared to step out of the screen toward me.

Some of these clips were impressive, and the technology needed to render them on such small screens is nothing to sneeze at. (One clip, of a tightrope walker balancing herself while suspended high above a canyon, was so realistic that it triggered my fear of heights.)

But I’ve seen similar things on other V.R. headsets, and the Vision Pro’s movie-watching experience wasn’t superior enough to those models to justify the device’s cost. It doesn’t help that several leading entertainment companies, like Netflix and YouTube, aren’t offering apps for the Vision Pro, so you’ll have to use Apple TV or another compatible service, like Disney+, if you want to get the fully immersive experience.

I also can’t see myself wanting to play games in a Vision Pro, at least not with the meager game selection available for the device today. Without external controllers, the device isn’t good for fine-grain movement or rapid button pressing, making it a poor choice for serious gamers. And forget working out in it; you think I’m going to risk ruining a $3,500 computer with my face sweat?

The clearest lesson from my demo — aside from the fact that I need to spend more time with this thing in order to get a fuller picture of its abilities — is that the Vision Pro doesn’t blend into its surroundings as well as Apple wants it to.

Apple has avoided marketing the Vision Pro as something that replaces the real world or isolates you in some kind of sci-fi metaverse. It wants using a Vision Pro to feel as subtle and unobtrusive as pulling out an iPhone or a pair of AirPods.

But that’s not going to happen, at least not for a while.

That’s because most of what’s impressive about the Vision Pro happens in fully immersed V.R. environments, not the kinds of “augmented reality” situations that Apple is envisioning, in which virtual objects are overlaid on your physical surroundings. And while Apple has made it much easier to toggle between virtual and physical worlds, there’s still some friction involved.

V.R. headsets are still niche enough that they attract attention, which is why the target market for the Vision Pro right now includes both show-offs (people who want to be noticed wearing the latest high-end Apple gadget) and shut-ins (people who rarely leave their houses anyway, so why does it matter if the device attracts stares?).

The novelty factor may wear off, but for now, it’s a real consideration for anyone hoping to fly under the radar while wearing a Vision Pro. Like it or not, Apple has built a device that is too wild to be ignored.