I was innocently watching YouTube when I happened upon a clickbaity video warning that Apple Vision Pro has a PROBLEM, and I was powerless not to click on it. Inside, a man was furiously screaming that the company had limited the VR experience to ten feet by teen feet and you had to be sitting on an [expletive deleted]1I promised my mom I’d stop swearing so much in public. couch.
My third response (after “why did I click on that?” and “take it down a few notches my dude”) was that he must be mistaken. He must’ve been taken in by a rumor, or maybe misinterpreted the public documentation.
But then I found an article by Samuel Axon on Ars Technica from last June, confirming that the documentation explicitly says that a VR experience (“fully immersive experience” in Apple’s retina-means-high-resolutionspeak) will be interrupted if the user moves more than 1.5 meters away from their starting point. In other words: the Apple Vision Pro won’t support room-scale VR.
Quick aside for anybody who’s unfamiliar with the terminology: “room-scale VR” just means that you can walk around your own space to move around the virtual space. Other types are seated (on your #@$%&! couch or otherwise) or stationary (standing but not moving from your starting position). All of the current major consumer-level VR headsets support room-scale tracking.
It’s entirely likely that I’d already heard this, and either misinterpreted it myself, or understood it and completely forgot about it. I’ve spent the time since then assuming that of course it must support room-scale tracking, since the device seems entirely capable from a technological standpoint. AR tracking on the last few models of iPhone — which aren’t purpose-built AR devices — is excellent, and you can place a virtual object in space, walk around the room a bit, and return to find it still sitting where you left it.
That Ars Technica article says, correctly, that the “limitation” shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to how the company is trying to position the device2No pun intended. Apple’s been insistent that this isn’t a VR headset; in fact, they refuse to use the industry standard terms like “augmented reality,” “virtual reality,” or even “mixed” or “extended” reality, in favor of their own “spatial computing.”
The general idea is that the Vision Pro is meant to enhance and extend the way you use Macs and iPads already — watching TV and movies, looking through photos and video, browsing the web, telecommunications, and I guess making keynote presentations? They’re emphasizing that this isn’t some entirely unfamiliar type of computer; it’s the same stuff you’re already doing, but bigger and in 3D.
And that part makes sense. A lot of what they’ve been trying to do is essentially counter-programming, undoing people’s preconceived notions of what a head-mounted display is, based on what they’ve seen from Oculus and others. They’re adamant that you’re not putting on blinders; the video passthrough has to be as flawless as possible. They insist that it’s not isolating; you can see everyone and everything around you. They insist that it’s not just a toy or a video game console, but fits squarely in the “lifestyle device” as all of their other products. And they insist that you should look as creepy AF while you’re wearing it.
I’m in general agreement with that Ars Technica article, and only in mild disagreement with its conclusion:
But I do know two things for sure: Vision Pro is not going to offer the same sorts of experiences as a Meta Quest or a Valve Index, and that’s more good than bad for Apple’s prospects, given the hard market limits those devices appear to have run into.
By every account I’ve seen, the Quest 2 has been a huge success for its company, and it’s outsold every other VR headset by far. And it seems reasonable to assume that Apple would need the Vision line to exceed that in order to justify the investment they’ve made in it. You can see why they’d want to target the device at people who have no interest in Beat Saber or Superhot — or really, the people who have no idea what those two titles even are.
And even with Apple’s messaging — showing families interacting with each other, people sitting on a couch watching videos or looking at photos, one image after the other presenting the Vision Pro as social and comfortable — the complaints (apart from the price, obviously) have still been that it will feel weird and isolating. So the company has clearly done their research to predict how people feel about HMDs, and they’ve got their work cut out for them to convince people otherwise.
Where I (mildly) disagree with Axon in his Ars Technica article, though, is in the implication that room-scale VR is such a niche that it’s not in Apple’s best interest to pursue.
My mistaken assumption had been that the Vision Pro would be a superset of existing consumer-level headsets: it’d support all of the stuff that a Quest 2 can do, and also all of the stuff that’s in Apple’s marketing images. And because the AR component is so well done, that it’d be a no-brainer for nerds like me, who wanted the next generation of HMD to be essentially “backwards compatible.”
Knowing that the VR experience is limited by design — and again, I’d be shocked if it’s a technical limitation — dumps a $3500 bucket of cold water on my enthusiasm for it. So far, I’ve been so impressed by what I’ve seen that I’d all but committed to being an early adopter. Yes, it’s absurdly expensive, but I’d been thinking of it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in at the start of the next generation of computing paradigms. (Yes, my thought process was indeed that pretentious).
Apple got so much right with the AR/”spatial computing” part of the experience. The eye tracking is uncanny, as is the gesture recognition. The light estimation — where virtual objects appear to be lit by the same light sources as everything else in your room — was better than anything I’ve seen before. The demos they showed in their initial announcement video were criticized for being obviously fake, but I had a hard time spotting anything that couldn’t be done by even an intermediate developer with the SDK and/or Unity. It seemed genuinely revolutionary. And even the high price seemed roughly in line with the cost of an Apple laptop and a huge 3D monitor.
But I’ve also been having trouble thinking of a must-have use case for it. I have little doubt I’d be impressed with all of the activities shown in their marketing material; I have little doubt I’d find it magical just to browse through apps on the damn thing. And that was even before they showed someone having the Main Street Electrical Parade on their table, or watching The Mandalorian from inside a landspeeder, which left me feeling almost unfairly targeted. But as for long-term usefulness, I’d been assuming that I could do all of the AR stuff on top of having a top-of-the-line VR headset.
One thing that Axon is absolutely, 1000% correct about: it’s never, ever a good idea to bet against Apple. They haven’t always met with guaranteed success, but more often than not, they turn products from seemingly useless novelties into ubiquitous, essential devices. Even as a shameless and unrepentant Apple fan, I’ve been skeptical that the watch, AirPods, or even iPads would become more than niche products, and I’ve been surprised over and over again.
So my hesitancy doesn’t come from believing that Apple will fail with the Vision line (Pro and, presumably, onwards). It’s from believing that the feature set will stabilize and improve over the next few iterations. If the rule is “Apple doesn’t do it first, but they do it right,” you have to add an asterisk with “eventually, after a few iterations.” My first iPhone only supported web apps and had no App Store. My first Apple Watch gave me the never-used ability to send my heartbeat to a loved one. My first five or so iPads didn’t let me use a stylus for input, which is basically all I use it for at this point.
I realize that basically, this is a variation on the ages-old complaint that Apple doesn’t care enough about video games to make the Mac competitive as gaming machine. They seem to be committed to Apple Arcade, at least, but of course, that’s still iOS-centric, and nobody’s unclear on the fact that games on iPhones and iPads are a much bigger market than on Macs. It seems like they’re trying yet again to cater to game developers, but I think the damage is already done, and it’s irreparable: developers don’t make games for the Mac because nobody plays games on the Mac because there are no games being made for the Mac, etc. etc. All the way back to the time when PC gaming started to take off, and the decision-makers looked at the numbers and said, “Nah.”
I suspect that, assuming the Vision Pro is enough of a success to keep the product line afloat, we’ll eventually see a gradual introduction of software and hardware that is more “Quest-like.” Apple might allow for tracked controllers, made by a third party, to augment the system-level hand tracking.3In the only “gaming” demos I’ve seen so far, they’ve just shown a 2D game playing on a big virtual screen, with the player using a standard Bluetooth controller. Apple might eventually allow users to have “safety settings” which allow for movement when in VR.
Meanwhile, the Quest 3 does almost all the stuff I want from the current generation of VR headsets; the passthrough, while nowhere near as good as the Vision Pro’s, looks to be at least finally somewhat usable; and it’s one seventh the price of the first Vision Pro headset. I’m wondering if I should just throw yet more money Mark Zuckerberg’s way and voluntarily sit out the first iteration of Apple’s headset, like a sane person.
(One thing that only occurred to me as I was writing this: I’ve been assuming that detecting your play area when in VR, and preventing you from smacking into stuff, was a “solved problem” only because I’ve seen how the Quest and HTC’s headsets handle it. But it didn’t occur to me that there might be patents involved, which limit how Apple can handle objects or the player moving out of the safe area?)
In any case, if these changes come to the Vision platform in future iterations, I believe it’ll be too late. While the VR market is, admittedly, probably little more than a rounding error when you’re on the scale of Apple, it’s still not zero. But developers won’t make stuff for a platform unless the audience is there, and the audience won’t be there unless you support them from the start.
Again, I could be completely wrong, as I so often am when I try to second-guess a hugely successful global corporation. But it seems to me that Apple’s always had a frustrating blind spot when it comes to anything gaming-related4And mice, too. How come the company that brought the computer mouse into widespread mainstream use can’t seem to design one that isn’t total shit?, and I’m concerned that they’re artificially limiting the potential of an entirely new platform before it’s even had a chance to get started.
- 1I promised my mom I’d stop swearing so much in public.
- 2No pun intended
- 3In the only “gaming” demos I’ve seen so far, they’ve just shown a 2D game playing on a big virtual screen, with the player using a standard Bluetooth controller.
- 4And mice, too. How come the company that brought the computer mouse into widespread mainstream use can’t seem to design one that isn’t total shit?