Apple's Vision Pro Mixed-Reality Headsets: A Mixed Welcome

Category Technology

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Apple's Vision Pro has received a mixed welcome due to the $3,499 price tag and a lack of native apps. Third party developers need to bring their A-game to take advantage of the mixed-reality opportunities provided by the Vision Pro and require retooling of existing apps to make the most of the features it provides.

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The "one more thing" Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this year was the industry’s worst-kept secret. The Apple Vision Pro, the tech giant’s gamble on mixed-reality headsets, has received a mixed welcome. The new device is a feat of engineering, but it also comes with an eye-popping $3,499 price tag.

But there’s another issue as well that could prove to be a problem: getting third party developers on board with making native apps.

The Vision Pro headset is powered by a custom VisionOS system which is built from Apple's own A-Series chip, allowing the device to deliver low latency experiences.

Apple hopes the Vision Pro will fundamentally change how we interact with our devices—that once freed from the constraints of a smartphone or tablet screen, we’ll embrace "spatial computing," as the glitzy promo video shows. Gesture and eye tracking identifies where your focus is, allowing you to interact with apps without pressing buttons or a screen.

That could be great for consumers. But it’s a headache for Apple’s ecosystem of app developers. Apple explained that existing apps designed for the iPad will work on visionOS, the operating system powering the Vision Pro, without any changes. But those iPad apps will be displayed within a metaphorical window, losing much of the functionality provided by mixed reality.To fully take advantage of the technology and make the leap from the screen to the real world, these apps will need tweaking.

The Vision Pro also includes cameras for inside-out positional tracking and gesture recognition called LiDAR Scanner.

The announcement was a momentous one for René Schulte, head of 3D and quantum communities of practices at the Italian company Reply, which designs 3D environments as part of its business. But he’s worried that much of what was shown in the demo videos made limited use of the opportunities mixed reality should make possible."What I didn’t like was the focus on 2D content," he says. Schulte has been working with Microsoft’s mixed-reality HoloLens glasses since 2015, and with the Oculus Rift. He thinks some chances to overhaul the user experience for the Vision Pro were missed.

The display boasts a resolution of 2,880x1,680 pixels with an impressive 120fps frame rate.

In part that’s down to the challenges involved in redesigning apps for an entirely new interface. Reply published a white paper last year on how to take apps from two dimensions to three. In it, they admit that the change in mentality is not easy.

"Designers need to learn new methods and skills, and also get used to new tools," says Schulte. "Designing for 3D is not simply mirroring 2D concepts into three-dimensional space." Yet that’s just what he saw with—for instance—the presentation of Adobe Lightroom and Microsoft Office.

It has a combined audio jack that streams both audio and data at the same time.

Denys Zhadanov is a board member and former vice president of Readdle, a Ukrainian development company that produces a suite of popular productivity apps for iOS. He’s enthusiastic about the promise of the Vision Pro, but he recognizes that it’ll require retooling Readdle’s apps.

"We do have in our apps a lot of custom elements, so we will have to customize that and spend some time adjusting to match all of the things to run smoothly on Vision Pro," he says. Nevertheless, he sees the augmented-reality options made available by the Vision Pro as useful for his company’s apps. "I'll need more time to explore those ideas," he says, "but I think the device itself is phenomenal." The imminent release of a software development kit for VisionOS has opened up possibilities for mixed-reality app developers of the future.

The mixed reality experience is powered by RealityKit, a powerful and easy-to-use tool designed for building realistic, immersive games and experiences.

But with such a hefty price tag, is the Vision Pro really worth the investment? Developers will need to bring their A-game if they are to succeed. The challenge of taking existing apps and rewriting them for a new platform is complex, but the opportunities of leveraging the power of the Vision Pro might be worth the effort in the long run.

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