Apple’s Vision Pro will test Tim Cook’s legacy as an innovator

Apple will release its Vision Pro headset to consumers in the US on Friday, in a test of chief executive Tim Cook’s ability to create a groundbreaking product with mass appeal that can power a new phase of growth at the tech giant.

The device is the iPhone maker’s biggest product launch since the Apple Watch nearly a decade ago. But the Vision Pro is the chief executive’s boldest project since he was promoted to lead the company shortly before co-founder Steve Jobs’ death in 2011.

Apple has pitched the “mixed reality” headset as revolutionary hardware that will transform how millions work, communicate and entertain themselves at home. But critics suggest a high initial price point alongside a bulky design means it could garner more limited interest.

“Cook’s legacy as an operator is already solidified as world class,” said Gene Munster at Deepwater Asset Management. “His legacy as an innovator is going to hinge on how the Vision Pro plays out.”

The Vision Pro has a minimum price of $3,500, which is seven times more expensive than Meta’s latest Quest headset, launched last year. That had a starting price of $500, a similar tag to ByteDance’s Pico headsets.

The headset shifts between virtual reality, in which the wearer is fully immersed in a digital world, and a version of “augmented reality”, which overlays images upon the real surroundings.

Erik Woodring at Morgan Stanley said analysts would be able to “properly look at Vision Pro, and understand whether this is really a technology we believe can ramp up to $4bn, $10bn, $20bn of revenue in five years”.

Analysts estimate that about 400,000 Vision Pro headsets will be shipped in the first year. Taking the minimum price tag, this would equate to roughly $1.4bn in sales, minuscule compared with the $200bn in iPhone sales in the year to the end of September.

As many as 180,000 devices were pre-ordered in the weekend that began on January 19, when Apple opened its order books, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo estimated. He added that demand may “quickly taper off after the core fans and heavy users place their orders”. 

Users will find the Vision Pro experience both new and familiar. Once the device is calibrated to their eyes and hands, a click of the “Digital Crown” button — similar to the one on the Apple Watch — pulls up a home screen with the same family of icons as the iPhone has.

A person’s eyes, voice and hands will navigate the device while a pinch of the fingers serves as a “click” button. Multiple screens can be opened and placed around the user’s environment, in the same way a desktop user might use several monitors. The outside world can be dimmed or hidden entirely with immersive wraparound panoramas but anyone in proximity can loom into view and break through the barrier.

The experience gives the illusion of adding a digital layer over the natural environment, which Apple’s promotional materials suggest will give a home video and entertainment experience as well as an office set-up.

More than 300 developers have prepared apps specifically using the visual reality capabilities of the Vision Pro, data from market intelligence company Appfigures shows. Education, work and business-geared apps are the largest category, pointing to Apple’s intention to make the Vision Pro a device that goes beyond leisure and entertainment.

People at a developers conference photograph the headset. More than 300 developers have prepared apps using the visual reality capabilities of the Vision Pro © Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

“They know this isn’t the breakout year,” Munster at Deepwater said. “They just want to get developers on board and figure out the applications people are going to want to use.” He called speculation that Apple will launch a cheaper headset by the end of this year “premature”.

“Over the next 24 months we really do need to see the development of the Vision Pro app ecosystem,” Morgan Stanley’s Woodring said.

Some content providers however such as Netflix and YouTube have declined initially to offer apps on the device and will limit access to it via the browser.

Apple has been working behind the scenes with app developers. Apps are developed remotely without requiring access to the headset and are then fine-tuned on-site at Apple’s developer labs.

Steve Lee, co-founder and chief executive of AmazeVR, which offers immersive concert experiences, said the process of developing an app for the Vision Pro had only taken a few months.

Apple appeared to be gearing the device towards a wider range of experiences beyond gaming and fitness, Lee added. “I feel like Meta is more focused on the gaming experiences, and for their app store they mainly promote games, similar to the PlayStation and Xbox VR platforms,” he said.

“The question is really: ‘what are the apps that are going to completely change consumer behaviour and create new markets?’” said Cortney Harding, founder and chief executive of Friends with Holograms, who has worked with Meta.

“The barrier for most people is: ‘is it more useful for me to have this than to not have this?’ Harding added. “It’s more of a pain not to have a smartphone than to have a smartphone.”

Apple has been working with app developers and appears to be gearing the device towards a wider range of experiences beyond gaming and fitness © Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

In the past, training and education have been a key point of exposure to a new technology which eventually becomes mainstream, Harding said. She pointed to the success of the Apple IIE PC in the 1980s — thousands of which were initially donated to California schools. 

“The specs of the Vision Pro are far beyond what else is currently available on the market,” said Aneesh Kulkarni, chief technology officer at VR workplace training company Strivr.

The “pass-through” effect of seeing the real world at a resolution practically indistinguishable to the human eye, Kulkarni said, would make the experience of putting on a headset less isolating and would open new ways to blend the virtual and real world. 

Removing controllers and using eyes and hands would also “set the standard” for the devices, he added, opening the door for people to use them in much the same way they use a work laptop or PC today.

Meta introduced an experimental “Direct Touch” feature on its own devices last year although controllers are still the default.

“I think that’s where Apple is hanging their hat on: that spatial computing becomes the new way to work,” Kulkarni added.

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