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Apple Vision Pro hands-on: A new milestone for mixed reality, but issues remain

In the end, it's still a mixed reality headset.

Photo by Cherlynn Low/Engadget

"Wow, wow, wow. Bellissimo." That was the first thing I heard from one excited WWDC attendee as I waited to test Apple's just-announced Vision Pro mixed reality headset. That level is excitement is exactly what Apple is hoping for. Realistically, not everyone will be able to afford a $3,499 device. But if Apple can get mainstream consumers excited about the idea of spatial computing, then it'll be able to make a bigger splash when it inevitably unveils a more affordable follow-up.

After spending 30 minutes with the Vision Pro, my reaction is more tempered than that excitable attendee. It's undoubtedly the best mixed reality (VR/AR) experience I've had yet, delivering an unparalleled sense of immersion, with displays sharp enough to read text on websites, plus an intuitive gesture-based user interface. And yet, it's still just a VR headset, with many of the issues endemic to the entire category.

But let's start at the beginning. Before I was anywhere near the Vision Pro, I had to jump through a few setup hoops on an iPhone. First, I rotated my head around to map my face, then I gave the phone a full view of my ears for it to personalize the headset's spatial audio. I hopped into another room, took off my glasses, and an Apple representative used a machine to detect my prescription. The Vision Pro can't be used with glasses, so anyone who needs vision correction will have to order additional lenses.

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After a few minutes of admiring Apple's meticulously designed corporate campus, I entered a room to see the Vision Pro in action. It looked even more impressive than when I first caught a glimpse of it in the morning, but that's probably because I didn't have to fight off desperate Apple media at the same time. I slipped it on like any other VR headset: I held the front lenses in my left hand, pulled the rear head strap back a bit, and gently guided the device over my head.

The Vision Pro's stretchy rear headband felt more comfortable than any of Meta's VR devices, but the headset still placed a bit of pressure against my eyes and around my nose once I securely tightened it with a rear dial. The prototype unit also has a velcro strap that goes over your head, just like the Meta Quest. That's not visible on any of Apple's promotional materials, but the company tells me that the headset's modular design supports additional straps if necessary.

Even without the overhead strap, though, I'd wager the Vision Pro would still feel noticeable against your eyes. You probably won't forgot you're wearing it, which would ultimately limit its sense of immersion. And then there's the external battery pack, which will have to sit in your pocket or somewhere beside you to use the headset. I didn't have a major problem with it, but having to deal with an extra wire is something I didn't expect from an Apple headset.

But I'll admit, I mostly forgot about its slight discomfort once I experienced the Vision Pro in action. When the screen lit up, I was confronted with the same posh meeting room I initially entered, except this time I could also see an array of app icons hovering in front of me. Thanks to the headset's high-resolution front cameras, I had a clear view of my surroundings, along with the Apple representatives guiding my demo. It wasn't a perfect representation of reality, but it was better than any VR or AR product I've seen.

After a bit of eye tracking training, which involved following dots moving around the screen with just my eyes, it also felt like I gained a superpower. A mere glance at an app icon, or a specific menu or button, would instantly highlight it. Then I learned two key gestures, a finger pinch for selecting things, and a pinch-slide motion for scrolling up/down, or left/right. Unlike the Quest, you can also make those hand gestures comfortable on your lap; you don't have to hold your hands up like an amateur symphony conductor.

It may be a cliche to say this, but after just a few seconds of learning those gestures, I felt like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. A glance and a pinch is all it took for me to open up apps and breeze through the interface. I also figured out a flick and pinch motion could quickly scroll through websites, a genuinely intuitive gesture that simply felt delightful. After years of living with touchscreen interfaces on iOS and iPadOS, I don't think anyone is going to have trouble learning how to use the Vision Pro.

With the basics down, I was ready to experience the Vision Pro's most wondrous bits of hardware: Its dual 4K micro-OLED displays. They look sharper than any screen I've seen before, be it a VR headset or a TV. Photos look incredibly crisp, especially panoramic pictures, which completely fill your entire field of vision. And 3D videos shot with the Vision Pro's front cameras look eerily lifelike — almost as if you were replaying a perfectly captured memory.

I was most impressed with how the Vision Pro handled a 3D clip of Avatar: The Way of Water. The movie looked crisp and clear with all of the 3D depth I remembered from the theater. At times, the 3D looked even better than in cinemas, since I didn't have to reduce the brightness of the film with shaded 3D glasses. Apple wouldn't confirm if the Vision Pro could play The Way of Water in in a 48fps high frame rate — the film initially swapped between 24fps and 48fps footage in theaters — but even without that capability, it's something I'd still prefer to watch on headset instead of a 2D 4K TV.

Apple visionOS home screen
Apple visionOS home screen (Apple)

Like other VR headsets, you can also hop into a virtual cinema to watch videos. By default, that mode puts you in the middle of a theater, but as a dedicated front row sitter, it wasn't nearly close enough for me. (Fight me, I don't care.) Thankfully, the Vision Pro gives you options: I was able to virtually move much closer to the screen, while back row weirdos can also create that experience. Seeing Avatar: The Way of Water projected in clear 3D, at a size close to my local multiplex, felt miraculous. Just imagine slipping this thing on during a long flight and having a movie marathon.

The Vision Pro's side speakers also do a great job of recreating cinematic spatial sound. Since they're basically just tiny speakers, though, other people can also hear them. For a truly private experience, you'll have to slip in a pair of AirPods or AirPods Max.

Apple Vision Pro
Apple Vision Pro

While I'm mainly dreaming of the private cinema possibilities of the Vision Pro, Apple is positioning it as a next-generation computing platform. You can launch many of the company's native apps from its home screen, including Safari, the aforementioned Photos, and Messages. Keeping the dream of Minority Report alive, you can also drag windows to specific spots in your room. As you open new windows, apps also reposition themselves to make room, as you'd expect.

Apple's visionOS, which powers the headset, feels like a cross between iOS and macOS. Apple fans will be right at home. Tapping the Digital Crown on the upper right side of the headset brings you to the home screen, which is organized into Apps, People and Environments. The latter includes 3D captures of scenic spaces, like Oregon's Mount Hood.

When I loaded that space, I found myself sitting in front of a peaceful lake, but I could still see the Apple meeting room around the edges of my vision. As I rotated the Digital Crown, the 3D environment completely overtook what I was seeing, transforming into a fully VR experience. That seamlessness was astonishing — it's even better than a similar feature I saw on the Magic Leap 2.

I was similarly impressed with a glimpse at Apple's new video format, Apple Immersive Video, which delivers razor-sharp 180-degree videos in 3D. While 360-degree VR videos are nothing new, even the best of them look fuzzier than real life. Apple's tech, which relies on 8K footage from a new camera developed by the company, looks startlingly real. It captured the wonder of flying through the air, as well as the thrilling moment of a well-placed soccer goal. If Apple's spatial vision tech gains some traction, I'm sure plenty of sports fans would be eager to have a field-level view of the action. Notably, the footage still managed to feel immersive, even though it didn't fully wrap me in 360-degrees of video.

A Mindfullness app demo also showed off how effortlessly the Vision Pro can take over your reality. As I worked through a calm breathing exercise for a minute, my field of vision was slowly filled with a virtual flower, which blocked out my view of the meeting room.

As impressed as I was by much of the Vision Pro, it's clear that Apple's mixed reality universe isn't fully baked. While it was fascinating to have a FaceTime chat with another Apple representative wearing her own headset, I found the computer-generated "Persona" avatar to be strangely off-putting. It looked human, but also stiff and robotic — the uncanniest of valleys. If you were to FaceTime your parent, I'd bet they'd rather see your actual face, with all of its imperfections, instead of a cold CG simulacrum.

I thought back to that 3D video that initially wowed me: It showed a child blowing out their birthday candles and having fun with their siblings. But to take that video, a parent had to be wearing the Vision Pro headset, effectively separating themselves from fully experiencing that moment. Is a moment captured in time worth not being present for the actual moment? (It also brings to mind another scene from Minority Report, where a broken Tom Cruise finds a brief moment of solace by watching a hologram of his missing son.) Perhaps the Vision Pro could be placed on a stand to shoot 3D video, but that doesn't fully solve the odd inhumanity of Apple's initial pitch.

I ended my Vision Pro demo with an encounter with a dinosaur. When I launched the experience, the far wall of my meeting room transformed into an enormous prehistoric portal. I could see small reptiles crawling around the grown, and in the distance, I could hear an enormous dinosaur approaching. After asking if I was comfortable with being up close with a dino, the Apple reps suggested that I get up out of my seat and walk towards the wall. The dinosaur approached end eventually walked through the portal and partially entered the meeting room. It sniffed my hand when I held it out. Its scales looked impossibly real.

But, like so many VR experiences, it was a completely solitary endeavor. Maybe someone could have joined me if they had their own Vision Pro headset nearby, but how many people will actually buy this $3,499 device? Apple is positioning the headset as an alternative to an expensive home theater, but that's also something you can enjoy with other people. I'm pretty sure my wife would rather see Avatar: The Way of Water in 2D on our TV, instead of just hearing me wax about how great it looks in the Vision Pro. (More than one Apple representative suggested that problem could eventually be solved by buying multiple headsets. I laughed.)

Apple is still straddling the line between immersion and isolation with the Vision Pro. Some features, like EyeSight, which projects your eyes onto an OLED screen on the front of the device, can connect the headset's users with others nearby. I also thought the ability to see your hands in mixed reality, as well as to see others when they got close, was all pretty thoughtful. But those hands you see aren't real. The eyes on the headset are just a replication of your own. They're efforts to solve some of the more annoying issues with VR, but they aren't complete fixes.

Perhaps I'd be more enamored with the Vision Pro as a computing platform if I saw more of its capabilities. I couldn't try out the virtual keyboard, or its integration with Bluetooth keyboards, trackpads and mice. I couldn't see what it was like to project my MacBook's screen into a virtual display — something I predicted we'd see last week.

At the very least, Apple has succeeded in crafting the most impressive pitch for spatial computing yet. It's not just about games or forcing people to care about the metaverse. The Vision Pro wants to bring the things you already do on your computers into mixed reality. Perhaps this will lead to cheaper and more consumer-friendly headsets down the line. Maybe it sets Apple up for a hologram-filled future, where you don't even need to wear glasses to see digital elements. So much is uncertain. But for Apple, jumping into spatial computing could be worth the risk.

Follow all of the news from Apple's WWDC 2023 right here.

Update, January 16 2024, 1:48PM ET: Seven months after this story was originally published, we had another chance to get hands-on with the Vision Pro, this time with the floating keyboard live and available to test.