Will Apple’s Vision Pro be a design success?

As Apple says its new release “marks the beginning of a new era for computing”, we asked experts the significance of this wearable “spatial computer” and the technology it offers.

Apple has revealed the Apple Vision Pro, its mixed-reality “spatial computer” in the guise of a ski goggle-like headset, due to go on sale early in 2024.

Introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, the release has been heralded by Apple CEO Tim Cook as marking “the beginning of a new era for computing” – as well as one of three milestones in the company’s history to date.

“Just as the Mac introduced us to personal computing, and the iPhone introduced us to mobile computing, Apple Vision Pro introduces us to spatial computing”, Cook says.

The development of the biggest Apple release in a decade, “required invention across nearly every facet of the system”, according to Mike Rockwell, Apple vice president of the Technology Development Group.

Within the physical form of the headset is the new visionOS, the “world’s first spatial operating system”, where content and Apps can be controlled by “the most natural and intuitive inputs possible – a user’s eyes, hands, and voice”, Apple says.

Wearing the Vision Pro users are presented with an “infinite canvas” – variously acting as a personal cinema for watching films and TV shows, allowing 3D immersion in a landscape or offering users a 3D workspace in which to multitask between apps and real life.

Also included is Apple’s first 3D camera, and while on FaceTime, callers are displayed life-size, and the Vision Pro wearer as a digital representation, with face and hand movements powered by machine learning.

All this is enabled by two “postage-stamp” sized “ultra-high-resolution displays” (each with more pixels than a 4K TV), a low-latency silicon R1 chip and the Spatial Audio system, which matches sound to space.

Its wearability, performance and mobility, meanwhile, is improved by the use of “the most advanced materials possible”, according to Apple.

The “singular piece of three-dimensionally formed and laminated glass” creates “an optical surface that acts as a lens for the wide array of cameras and sensors needed to blend the physical world with digital content”, Apple says.

The aluminium alloy frame comes in familiar Apple-style white and silver finishes with curved profiles. Its fit is adaptable thanks to a modular system, and comfort ensured by a soft textile seal around the eyes and a 3D-knitted cushioned headband.

As a facial wearable the product may risk some of the same negative reactions as Google Glass, or Dyson’s air-purifying headphones, Dyson Zone. But while more substantial than the former, a feature called EyeSight is designed to enable users to stay “connected”. When someone approaches the Vision Pro wearer – if they are engaged in augmented reality (AR) mode rather than fully immersive virtual reality (VR) mode – transparencies allow the user to see both the person and the Vision Pro content, while their own eyes are displayed on the glass.

Industrial and digital media designer Nicolas Roope says that while not his cup of tea, “the design is exactly what you’d expect from Apple, and that’s why it’s perfect”.

“Anodyne enough not to offend, clean to distance itself from the messier category precedents and modern enough to frame what is essentially a dramatic step forward in capability.

“I imagine the design team would have liked to shed a bit of bulk here and there, but let’s not forget how much power this is packing, and the requisite battery capacity needed to keep those processors humming to the tune of a 3D Mickey Mouse.”

Entering the metaverse from an AI Bubble

“Because we’re in the AI bubble, there’s a lot of peer pressure to hiss and spit when you hear anything relating to VR, Metaverse”, Roope adds.

Beyond being stupid, he says, there is “an inevitability about this trajectory towards spatial computing”.

“The question isn’t whether or not the whole category is viable or not, it’s more whether this will be the right mix to really light up demand and critically, sustained use”.

In terms of what the technology represents, Roope adds that “the ability to operate in either mixed reality or full VR is a game changer”.

“It means the scope of the canvas reaches from a single overlayed pixel to complete immersion and everything in-between. This gives a huge space for developers to play with, both visually and conceptually.”

This he believes “is the step that was needed to get this technology on credible footing – even though there are still many barriers to overcome in the pursuit of mainstream adoption”.

Where competitors have fallen down, is an assumption that “the allure of the experience is enough to attract customers”, putting out “proprietary offerings, mangled and limited means of discovery and the odd bit of self-destructive navel gazing (e.g. Horizonworld)”, he adds.

Apple’s proposition meanwhile, “is several steps beyond anything we’ve seen in the space, with more ambition, vision and investment”, he says,

An evolution in the AR and VR market

David Johnston, lead technologist at Digital Catapult, the UK innovation agency for advanced digital technology,  agrees that the technology “signifies an evolution and improvement on existing players in the AR and VR market”.

“The sheer number of pixels, several sensors and use of luxury materials, combined with the functionality of the device means that Apple has effectively built upon years of human-computer interaction research, both from industry and academia”.

He points out that the product bears resemblances to other devices: “For example, Magic’s Leap positions itself as an entertainment and social connection device, while Meta’s Quest Pro has established itself as a premium standalone device”. He says that Apple has surpassed them and “appears to have paved the way” for the future of the product category.

Roope, meanwhile, is not the first to react to the hefty price tag of $3499 currently attached to the product. On the question of whether an audience will engage, he’s unsure whether it will be the Vision Pro, “the more affordable Vision that’s probably not far behind, or the Vision 2, 3, 4 or 5 we’ll see in coming years”, he says.

An era for other designers to define

“The biggest thing for me”, Roope adds, is the ecosystem that comes with the product.

“They demoed a ton of dazzling use cases yesterday, but I get the strong feeling that the killer apps haven’t been made yet (apart from gaming). And what we know from the past is platforms rarely spawn the defining apps of each generation themselves.”

The ecosystem works for both users “to safely navigate, discover apps, transact and enjoy content”, while for developers, they “access a fair marketplace and a logical, standards-based publishing environment”, he says.

He adds that the iPod and iPhone’s successes didn’t rely on looking nice or “form factor alone”: “They were both examples of how creating a really elegant, robust environment for creators and consumers alike is the winning formula for driving uptake of new phenomena”.

Like the designers of “killer apps such as Instagram, Airbnb, YouTube, Pinterest etc. that have defined the landscape of the mobile internet, designers are going to be as key to mainstreaming this new tech as is the hardware, the pipes and the platforms”.

Johnston adds that the value of the product to designers, meanwhile “is yet to be fully determined, but there is undoubtedly potential”. “The availability of a spacious, private workspace for working with traditional apps could be appealing to designers too”, he adds.

While he describes Apple’s use of “eye gaze and simple hand gestures” as a “bold bet that will likely pay off” for the product itself, he adds that for designers, “new modalities such as gaze, touch and speech open up possibilities for innovative design, creation and interaction” and new use cases across the creative industries.

 

 

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  • Neil Littman June 7, 2023 at 12:13 pm

    I was told the battery life of this product is only 2 hours so it isn’t suitable for gaming. There was a review of the headset on BBC R4 which only mentioned that gaming was not being promoted. Can you shed any light on these two points?

    • Tom Banks June 9, 2023 at 10:23 am

      We understand that two hours is correct. It requires an external battery pack for those two hours. Although Apple is not positioning the device around gaming it does claim that there is potential for new types of games due to the Vision Pro’s spatial computing format. Apple further states that 100 Apple arcade games will be available. We understand that the Meta Quest 2 has a similar battery life.

  • DMJ June 12, 2023 at 10:37 am

    I presume you can use it plugged in, so reducing battery life issues.
    However, for me, all google solutions share a similar problem, and that is bulk.
    Provide goggles that are as light and easy to wear as my aviators, then I might be interested.

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