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Apple Vision Pro Hands-On / Head-In

It’s heeeere! I’ve been waxing non-poetic for the better part of a decade about how Apple might enter the market with a device like this, and now, having spent some time with the device in daily use, the reality is a bit, well, mixed.

The Good:

Ok, let’s start with the best aspects. The physical build quality is impressive. This device feels exceptionally polished and “premium.” Glass, aluminum, and woven fabric all meld together to create a feeling of thoughtful elegance the moment you pick it up.

From there, the digital experience is equally slick and intuitive, from the frosted glass appearance of window borders to the way app icons fade in and out as you swipe through menus to the effortless iCloud sync - it’s all very “Apple.” 

They’ve even managed to almost turn a bug into a feature with a sort of ethereal effect around the edges of the screen that makes the limited field of view of the headset feel more like a magic portal than a diving mask.

The eye-tracked user interface is another “Apple” style innovation, where a relatively minor addition to an existing product category (like adding multi-touch to the smartphone) unlocks a “next-level” feeling for the user. 

That said, there is clearly a lot of technical heavy lifting behind the scenes to make this work, from calibrating at three levels of screen brightness to automatically moving the lenses to align with the user’s pupils.

The “digital crown,” or as I like to call it, “the dial button thing,” is kinda cool and allows a gradual switch from a passthrough “AR” view of the world to Apple’s fully immersive “Environments,” which are some of the best VR spaces I’ve seen from a pure graphics and immersion perspective. These aren’t just 360 photos or videos but seem to be a fusion of 3D environments, high-resolution video, particle effects, and spatial audio to create a dramatic sense of “presence” - the Mt Hood environment was particularly well executed.

Another feature Apple has executed well is video content - from traditional flat and 3D films to VR video. The 8k “Immersive Video” demos are breathtaking, which isn’t surprising as they acquired one of the top VR video production companies (NextVR) in 2020. 

That said, Apple’s branding is a little clunky here - they have introduced “Immersive Video,” which is not to be confused with “Spatial Video.” The former are professionally edited experiences, while the latter can be captured on an iPhone 15 or on the Vision Pro itself. It will be interesting to see how these formats evolve.

Speaking of “Spatial Video,”  one particularly thoughtful feature they have included is a warning for user-generated videos that contain excessive motion and could cause VR sickness in some viewers. This is a feature all platforms should emulate.

I also really enjoyed the ability to view my old panorama images - I’ve captured quite a few over the years, and it was fun to have these memories immediately available once I synched with iCloud.

The Not-so-good:

There have been plenty of reviews to date that cover some of the device’s shortcomings: it’s expensive, heavier than most headsets, and it has a relatively short battery life, given that it relies on a large external battery.

For me, the biggest drawback is that it seems like a device that hasn’t fully decided what it wants to be. 

Apple initially positioned the device as a monitor/laptop replacement. It has an impressive pairing experience where you simply look at your Macbook, and it mirrors the screen to a larger virtual monitor. The experience was a bit laggy at times, but I’m not sure if this was due to a slow network (wifi is hit or miss when traveling). 

It’s also a bummer I can’t pair this with a PC to play any of my Steam games on a big screen as I can with the Meta Quest.

It performs relatively well as a standalone productivity device (web-browsing, etc.), but the Achilles' heel here is that typing is a chore. 

Neither of the built-in keyboards (eye-based or touch-based) is remotely as accurate and fast as a laptop or phone keyboard. I did pair a Bluetooth keyboard with the Vision Pro, and while the speed and accuracy were much better, the user experience on the device seemed like it wasn’t designed for this. There was a floating window with my current line of text in front of the Notes app. I ended up just moving that window out of the way, and it wasn’t a huge deal, just a bit surprising because of how well everything else has been thought out.

A phone-pairing keyboard solution could work well here. However, the current passthrough quality (which is fantastic compared to everything else on the market) makes using your phone a little uncomfortable as the image swims and distorts. 

Another strike against the Vision Pro as a laptop replacement is the video conferencing experience, where you use a 3D-scanned avatar to represent yourself in calls. In fairness, this feature is in Beta, but it was comically off-putting to everyone I tried it with. That could be because my avatar seemed to suffer from a notably “busted grill.” Maybe the next update will have some virtual orthodontic improvements.

It’s the central mono-tooth for me

The bottom line

At the end of the day, Apple has created something important and has advanced the state of the art with its first foray into XR. The eye-tracked interface is something competitors will copy for future products, and the feel and polish of Apple’s experience has absolutely raised the bar of expectations.

The places where the Vision Pro falls short are generally just unsolved problems for the entire industry - video conferencing avatars, virtual keyboards, battery life, etc - these are not uniquely Apple issues, but areas where everyone needs to improve. 

I may have had somewhat unrealistic expectations that the team at Apple would magically solve everything in their V1 product.

While this isn’t necessarily a product I would recommend for most people, I sincerely hope that Apple continues to iterate and refine its headset offerings and that we see a V2, V3, etc. family of products.

If the iPhone can serve as a guide, the first version was about 70% of the way there, and then a few killer features were added in subsequent generations of hardware and software.

Hopefully, the same happens here!

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