Apple unveils the Vision Pro, its long-awaited $3,500 mixed reality headset
Apple Inc. has finally made good on its much-anticipated mixed-reality headset today during the WWDC 2023 developer conference with the Vision Pro, which Chief Executive Tim Cook described as a “spatial computer.”
“Today marks the beginning of a new era for computing,” said Cook. “Just as the Mac introduced us to personal computing, and iPhone introduced us to mobile computing, Apple Vision Pro introduces us to spatial computing.”
It comes at the rather high price tag of $3,499 and won’t ship until early next year. This puts it somewhat in competition with Meta Platform Inc.’s Meta Quest Pro, priced at $1,499, which was aimed at enterprise business and professional users.
The Vision Pro has all the visual hallmarks of an Apple device: It’s sleek, polished, white and made of flowing lines. The glass front for the mixed reality headset looks like a pair of ski goggles that gently curve around the face with a single headband that wraps around the back of the head to keep it in place.
Upon donning Vision Pro, users will see the home view, with all the apps right in front of them. The headset has a visual passthrough capability known as “mixed reality,” which means that it uses cameras and sensors on the front of the headset to allow users to see the world around them and projects apps and experiences overlaid onto their vision.
Apps and windows appear to be floating in the world and even cast shadows onto objects, providing them with a sense of presence. This allows users to move and place them in the room wherever they like.
The headset is also capable of immersive virtual reality experiences, where the view itself is completely computer-generated. Users can control how much immersion they want to experience by turning a digital crown on the headset so they can see more or less of the room.
For connectivity, the Vision Pro works with Bluetooth accessories such as the Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad, allowing users to set up their own workspace anywhere they like. They can also connect their own Mac into Vision Pro wirelessly, allowing them to create a private workspace that nobody else can see.
Inside the Vision Pro are two ultra-high resolution displays capable of delivering 23 million pixels across both eyes, which Apple says is the equivalent of a portable 4K display. Under the hood, the displays are combined with catadioptric lenses to provide additional sharpness and clarity. For users who need vision correction, there are Zeiss optical inserts available to insure visual fidelity and optical tracking accuracy.
A spatial audio system is built directly into the headband that uses individually amplified drivers. It employs sensors built into the headset in order to adjust the sounds to match the environment that the user is sitting in. Using Bluetooth connectivity, users can also use AirPods to connect to the headset as well.
As an interesting design decision, no doubt to make the headset more lightweight, the battery is external and connected via a long wire to the side. It comes in a bulky battery pack that can be put into a pocket and lasts about two hours on a single charge for portable use. For all-day use, it can be plugged in.
To control their virtual environment, users use their eyes, hands and voice. Inside the headset are high-speed cameras and a ring of LEDs that project invisible light. It tracks eye movements, enabling users to look where they want to interact. Then with a pinch of a finger, they can “click” on an app or gesture or look at a search box and then begin dictating. They can also use Siri for voice activation apps.
Another element that is a surreal but interesting component is the front face of the headset which reveals the user’s eyes. Named “EyeSight,” it uses a curved OLED display that shows a display of the user’s eyes beneath the headset to people standing nearby instead of showing just a flat surface. Also, if another person walks nearby, and the person wearing the headset is immersed in a virtual experience, that person will break through their immersion, so that they don’t run into them.
The cameras on the headset also allow users to record their memories in three dimensions. That means users can capture immersive 3D memories, including spatial audio, and upload them into the cloud.
All of these different features are powered by Apple silicon chips in a dual-chip setup, the company revealed. The headset uses an M2 chip paired with a brand-new R1 chip which processes the 12 cameras, five sensors and six microphones built into the headset in order to stream virtual and mixed reality content in real time. Using the R1 chip, visuals are streamed to the displays within 12 milliseconds.
“It would be drastic to say that Apple Vision Pro will replace a computer or cellphone in the immediate future, but that day will come soon — most likely starting with those who enjoy having a second or third monitor at their workstations,” Rolf Illenberger, chief executive of VRDirect, an enterprise VR platform, told SiliconANGLE. “This announcement serves as a welcome bridge into the world of AR and VR by a company known for creating seamless, reliable and integrated technology.”
VisionOS, the operating system for the Vision Pro
To power those features, Apple has also built a new operating system for the Vision Pro, visionOS, designed for spatial computing.
According to the company, visionOS was built on the foundation of macOS, iOS and iPadOS, and included numerous capabilities designed to support mixed reality and spatial computing. It features a three-dimensional interface designed to make the content look like it fits into the real world and enables user navigation and interaction.
As a result of its development process, it’s compatible with apps from other Apple operating systems at launch, giving users access to familiar iPhone and iPad apps. It will also feature its own all-new App Store, where users will be able to discover content from developers designed specifically for the Vision Pro.
“Vision Pro’s biggest advantage is integration into the Apple ecosystem,” said Illenberger. “The all-important ability to go from the iPhone to iPad to Apple Watch with a similar user experience and low barrier to entry. Familiar, yet revolutionary, as the announcement put it. That’s why the VR community has been excited about this launch. That’s where we believe the potential exists to creating believers.”
Apple has already been working with Unity Software Inc., the developer of a multiplatform game engine, to allow its framework to run natively on the Reality Pro. Apple also partnered with Walt Disney Co. to develop content for the headset at launch along with the company’s streaming service. The iPhone makers also opened up its developer tools for the headset platform today with information on how to get a head start on developing for it.
To protect user privacy, Vision Pro uses a system called Optic ID, a new authentication system that analyzes a user’s iris in order to unlock the device. The information about the iris scan is held only in the Secure Enclave on the device, is fully encrypted and never leaves the device. Where the user looks and other sensor processing is also not shared with apps on the device.
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