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Apple Vision Pro: Ushering in a New Era of Spatial Computing and Redefining User Interaction with Technology

This post is a section of the New Technology article in Bob Cooney’s VR Arcade Game Buyer’s guide (download full guide here). Links to the other sections in this article are at the end of this post.

Virtual reality technology continues to evolve at a fast pace. While unlikely to impact the location-based entertainment market for the next year, the biggest news was from Apple. On June 5th at their Worldwide Developer Conference, in a tribute to Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook teased the audience with “One more thing”.

That “thing” was the Apple Vision Pro (AVP), a breakthrough “spatial computing device” that promises to change the way we interact with technology. Cook never mentioned the term “virtual reality” and only alluded to “augmented reality” once. But make no mistake, this is the world’s best VR headset.

Apple’s entry into new product categories has a history of substantially inflating those markets.

  • iPod grew the MP3 player market from 3MM to 25MM units (8X)
  • Apple Watch ballooned smartwatches from 7MM to 92MM units (13X)
  • iPhone took smartphone shipments from 80MM to 500MM (6X)

The announcement of the Vision Pro had an immediate impact on the investment community, with VR money flowing into VR startups at a rate unseen since 2018. Developers are already building apps for the Vision Pro, despite the fact that millions of iPad apps will already work on the headset upon launch.

One of the controversies in the VR community after the announcement was the lack of 3D applications shown in the launch video. Apple mostly highlighted 2D applications, like a web browser or spreadsheet floating in front of the user. Virtual reality’s strengths are immersing the user in a 3D computing environment, and Apple downplayed those use cases.

Apple’s $3500 entry into the VR market

My take is that’s smart marketing. Apple is meeting the mainstream computer user where they are today. They’re used to 2D; so, dropping them directly into the deep end of the 3D pool could overwhelm them. They’re wading them into the shallow end where they’ll be comfortable. VR has developed a reputation of making people disoriented or even sick. Apple is avoiding those comparisons entirely.

But developers are at work making 3D immersive games and apps for the Vision Pro that will blow people away. It will be fascinating to see what new innovations the millions of Apple developers create. When the iPhone was launched, nobody envisioned Uber or Instagram (except the people who invented them). Uber went on to disrupt the transportation industry, and Instagram changed both the restaurant industries and popular culture. Expect the Vision Pro and virtual reality to have even bigger impacts over the next five to 10 years.

Besides their entry and validation of the VR market, the Vision Pro promises a few key innovations that other companies will likely copy in the coming years. Here is my take on the biggest ones.

User Interface

Apple didn’t invent much of the technology showcased in the Vision Pro launch. Though they did reference thousands of patents filed in the development of the device, things like pass-through video, high-resolution screens, and eye and hand tracking have been found on other devices. What Apple does better than anyone is make these technologies seamless and usable. And their new user interface standards will change how we use not just VR headsets, but computers.

Every other VR headset to date took user interface cues from past technology. Controllers with buttons and triggers to activate virtual keyboards work great for personal computers but are clumsy in 3D. Apple dispatched that entire paradigm. The Vision Pro combines eye tracking, gestures, and voice recognition to create the most natural computing interface ever. The headset knows exactly what you’re looking at and highlights that object as if you’d placed your mouse cursor on it. Then, with a tap of your thumb and index finger, the object is activated. And forget typing; the on- chip neural engine instantly translates your voice to text. (Let’s just hope they improve over Siri.)

Apple Vision Pro introduces the first natural human computer user interface

Apple’s mixed reality makes it easy to move between your physical environment and full immersive VR

It’s remarkably intuitive, and early users have described it as “magical”. Facial cues, gestures, and voice are how we communicate as a species. Soon, it’s how we will use computers, and the thought of a physical keyboard and mouse will seem as archaic as using DOS prompts and light pens (I am aging myself there).

“What if you want to dial down reality a bit and become more immersed in a virtual environment?

Mixed Reality and The Reality Dial

The Vision Pro uses a series of cameras to show the user their physical environment in high-resolution (8K). The stereoscopic, low latency cameras let you walk around a room, seeing everything and everyone in its place. A LiDAR sensor scans the environment in three dimensions, so it knows where every object is. Virtual objects can be placed in the physical space, and the computer can interact with real-world objects. If you throw a virtual ball across the room, it will bounce off the walls, your couch, and roll under the table so you bang your head when you try to retrieve it. (Murphy works in virtual reality too.)

But what if you want to dial down reality a bit and become more immersed in a virtual environment? Apple included a dial that lets you increase or decrease the amount of immersion. Want to watch a movie and replicate the theater experience? Just dial out reality entirely. Want to watch the kids while you’re working on that presentation? Dial it back in.

Apple realizes that different contexts and activities call for different levels of isolation or inclusion. If wearable computers are the future, they must adapt to various situations. The Vision Pro is the first attempt to work this out.

Another way Apple addresses the isolation concerns of VR headsets is what they’ve dubbed EyeSight. (I wonder if they’ve also filed to copyright EyeRoll?) Leveraging the eye tracking cameras, external screens on the front of the headset show the user’s eyes to others in the room so they feel like they’re being seen (which they are through the pass-through cameras). If a user is fully immersed with the reality dial and someone comes into the room, the Vision Pro senses their presence and automatically dials down the immersion level, letting the user see who’s entered their space. We won’t know how well these new modes perform until the product ships, but Apple is doing a great job at solving the complaints about VR isolation.

Spacial Video

Since the iPhone first included a LiDAR sensor to scan spaces in 3D, (ostensibly to enable better mobile augmented reality experiences), I have predicted that we would soon be taking 3D videos and photos with our phones. During the Apple Vision Pro launch, they demonstrated how to shoot and view immersive video with the headset. But who wants to carry around and wear a headset to record video?

Apple Vision Pro can take and view 3D “spatial” videos

The iPhone 15 Pro, released in September, can take spatial video using a combination of the normal and widescreen lenses. Millions of 3D video cameras will be on the streets within months. Soon, applications like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube will add spatial video channels to be viewed on the Vision Pro. And who knows what other innovations will come from the developer network.

Apple has 34 million registered developers building apps for iOS, MacOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and now VisionOS. There are over two million apps for the iPhone today. Apple claims that most iPhone and iPad apps will work with their headset without any modifications. These will show up as 2D screens in the 3D work environment. Analysts expect shipments of the first version of Vision Pro to total hundreds of thousands of units due to the cost and complexity of manufacturing.

Apple put the battery on a tether to keep weight down

Over time, the price will come down, 3D or spatial apps will proliferate, more media will become available, and shipment numbers will increase. Apple is already working on 3D live sports, and Disney showcased some of their plans during the launch video. Within a few years you’ll be able to watch a soccer or baseball game from anywhere on the field from the comfort of your couch. And probably pay dearly for that experience.

Within five years, the Vision headset series will be a serious competitor to the laptop for mobile computing. Within 10 years, VR headsets will replace laptops, just as laptops have replaced desktops for most workers.

So, what does this have to do with the location-based entertainment business? More people will adopt VR every year. Remember that first time you watched something on HDTV, and then had to go back to a 480P broadcast? During that transition I remember I would seek out HD content because watching SD had become painful. As more people experience spatial computer, or VR, all those 2D flat-screen video games will feel archaic, and ultimately be relegated to the classic arcades. It’s taking longer than I first predicted, but it’s definitely happening.

Other sections of this VR Buyer’s Guide article you may be interested in

  1. Quest 3
  2. Markerless Motion Capture

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