Apple’s Vision Pro headset has made the metaverse feel outdated

Apple finally revealed the $3,499 Vision Pro, its long-awaited “mixed reality” headset, this week. It conjured up many descriptions — a “spatial computer that seamlessly blends digital content with the physical world”, a “personal movie theatre with a screen that feels 100 feet wide” — but one word remained glaringly absent: “metaverse”.

The metaverse, a virtual world in which people would meet as avatars to play, work and socialise, was all the rage not long ago. Facebook renamed itself Meta in 2021, and companies from Microsoft to Sony have proudly unveiled headsets. But the vision that excited executives has landed with a thud among consumers.

“This one is for you, the believers . . . the people who’d rather be early than fashionably late,” Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, declared with a touch of snark last year as he unveiled its professional Meta Quest Pro headset. On cue, Apple rolled up late to the party this week with a disdainful glance at the early arrivals.

Apple took its time. It has been working on virtual and augmented reality for seven years and the Vision Pro still lacks some of the design sleekness for which it is known: the headset is tethered to a separate battery. Yet those who tried it briefly were impressed by the high-definition clarity of its images and the thinking behind them.

“You know there’s a screen in front of you, but it feels very real. I’ve never had that feeling before,” Francisco Jeronimo, an analyst for IDC Europe, told me. Leo Gebbie, of CCS Insight, said that he had tried dozens of headsets over years and “I can quite comfortably say this is the best experience I’ve ever had”.

Apple has not let mere money get in the way. At seven times the price of Meta’s forthcoming Quest 3 headset, which is intended to do some of the same things, the Vision Pro is defiantly expensive. It crams 23mn pixels on two tiny screens, viewed through custom lenses, with photos and videos rendered by two Apple chips.

This sounds like overkill, but one of the problems with virtual reality is that the technology has been inadequate. Instead of being transported seamlessly into a digital utopia, headset wearers have felt uncomfortable, disoriented and sometimes queasy. They have also looked ridiculous and been cut off from their surroundings.

Not being in California for the launch this week, I popped over instead to Otherworld in east London, billed as “the world’s most immersive VR experience”. There, I wore an HTC Vive Pro headset, held two controllers and climbed into a pod to play various games, including Fruit Ninja, on an island metaverse.

Others were enjoying themselves but my main sensations after half an hour were of motion sickness and an urge to escape outside. Apple has tried to conquer the first problem, common among headsets, by rendering the images fast enough that there is not a noticeable lag, and thus less nausea.

But there is a deeper difficulty with virtual reality: the idea of the metaverse itself. No matter how enthusiastic Zuckerberg and others get about turning us into cartoons to spend hours in virtual worlds, it remains unconvincing apart from for gaming. I have never been tempted and, to judge by sales figures, neither have plenty of others.

It is far more natural to remain in the beautifully lit, high-definition world we already inhabit and have digital elements overlaid on it with technology. That idea, known as augmented reality, is what Apple has aimed at with the Vision Pro, and its presentation succeeded this week by demonstrating how it could work.

The first thing that users see after putting on headsets is the rooms they are in, rather than a virtual world. They are shown the usual array of Apple apps, which they select using eye and hand movements, and which open in screenlike displays. Even if they are viewing a film, they can see if someone approaches them.

In fact, the Vision Pro is a trick mirror: rather than being an augmented reality device, it is a virtual reality headset posing as one. Users see images of the world through high-definition cameras rather than gazing through its visor. Apple has not yet pulled off the technological feat of making true AR glasses.

So while Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, opened his remarks by saying that “augmented reality is a profound technology”, he also referred to the Vision Pro as “the beginning of a journey”. That was probably wise: I will not be rushing out to spend $3,499 on this first attempt to make a headset into a must-have technology.

But Apple achieved one thing this week: it made the mass appeal of such a device plausible. It unveiled something that is both more familiar and more sophisticated than what came before, and rendered today’s virtual worlds even less enticing. The all-purpose metaverse already looked financially perilous; it now feels outdated.

Apple is not necessarily destined to dominate augmented reality; by the time an affordable Vision arrives, others will have had time to adjust. But it has a habit of defining technologies, from the Macintosh to the iPhone. On this week’s evidence, it still has the knack of being fashionably late.

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