For years, rumors circulated that Apple would launch an Augmented Realty device into the market to revolutionize a long-challenged device category. The company often downplayed virtual reality (VR) and outright dismissed any notions of Metaverse.
At WWDC 2023, Apple unveiled a highly anticipated XR (Extended Reality) headset called Vision Pro. The company claims that this device will usher in a new era of "spatial computing" which, in all fairness and irony, is a term that Qualcomm has championed at least since CES 2023.
Categorically, Vision Pro is a mixed reality (MR) device with a form factor more akin to a VR headset than a slick pair of AR glasses that you might consider wearing in public. Frankly, a ground-breaking pair of AR glasses would have been an astonishing technology and engineering feat on Apple’s part but beyond expectations and the state of tech and art.
Vision Pro foregoes optical overlay typical of conventional AR devices such as Magic Leap 2 and Microsoft’s pioneering HoloLens. Instead, Vision Pro blends AR and VR modalities with a “pass-through” approach, which is essentially how AR apps work today on your iPhone using sensors and the front-facing camera to reference and convey your physical space on screen.
Apple is not entirely a pioneer here. Lenovo (ThinkReality VRX) and HTC (VIVE XR Elite) released their own pass-through MR devices for enterprise shortly before WWDC 2023.
With a short 2-hour of mobility with a tethered battery pack, Vision Pro is far from the mobile AR glasses that would supplant the durable smartphone as our primary personal device. One thing Apple has emphatically stated with Vision One, viable consumer mobile AR glasses are further in the future than we might have believed or hoped.
Apple touts that over 5,000 patents were filed in the development of Vision Pro. Yet, many of the technologies for features that make up Vision Pro’s user interface paradigm such as gaze tracking, gesture tracking, and voice command have been around for years.
Qualcomm has developed Snapdragon Spaces which provides software frameworks and tools that complement their purpose designed XR processors to help OEMs implement many of the "revolutionary" spatial computing features of Vision Pro.
Vision Pro will have a starting price of $3,500 when it becomes available in early 2024. Apple seems to have engineered an elegant, technological, and aesthetic expression of what a mixed reality device can be at what many Wall Street and industry analysts consider a show-stopping premium.
With boundless resources, Apple is introducing a number of ground-breaking innovations. Most notably, Vision Pro features custom micro-OLED display technology that is able to deliver 4K resolution to each eye which is equivalent to 23 million pixels, according to Apple. The Vision Pro’s display is reminiscent of the iPhone’s Retina display which took smartphone visual experiences to a new level.
There is little doubt that Vision Pro is an engineering and design marvel, but will that be good enough to take XR mainstream? The 45-minute Vision Pro unveiling showcased familiar XR use cases such as VR sessions, virtual meetings, and gaming that have struggled to deliver an XR revolution for years.
What is Apple’s big picture game?
Content has always been the bugbear of XR. The production of immersive content is not only challenging and costly, but immersive formats also tend to be difficult for storytellers who have yet to figure out how to craft narratives with a medium that provides the audience with agency to wander off script. XR gaming has only proven for years that it is not the catalytic app the industry has expected.
The killer Vision Pro app could very well be Immersive live experiences blended with spatial computing.
Coincidentally, Apple introduced Apple Music Live last year which features live performances by chart-topping artists such as Harry Styles and most recently, Ed Sheeran. Apple TV+ continues to expand its pro sports program adding Major League Soccer earlier this year. In short, Apple has enough control over live media production and the channels to drive immersive media innovation and content formats.
Disney seems to see the potential for revamping media experiences into a new era of spatial computing. Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, took a spot during the WWDC keynote to announce their partnership with Apple, teasing the prospect of immersive Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney experiences.
Curiously, there was no mention of ESPN. Hybrid spatial and immersive sports experiences tailored for Vision Pro could resuscitate this struggling Disney brand that has suffered persistent declines in subscribers for years. ESPN would certainly bring a wide range of sticky sports content into the Vision Pro content fold.
One can easily imagine Apple and Disney with their shared legacy of innovation and industry leadership pioneering the production and distribution of immersive spatial media for live events such as sport and concerts. This content could be experienced in full with Vision Pro while consumable across most Apple devices. If there is a will, Apple has the cross-device stack and experience continuity to make it happen.
For the consumer creator, Vision Pro is armed with an innovative 3D spatial camera that allows the user to take high quality volumetric video and photos. The capture of immersive personal moments could be compelling enough to propel Apple’s spatial computing vision into the consumer mainstream.
In terms of creator tools, Apple will be releasing Reality Composer Pro which will provide a Nvidia Omniverse-like environment for composing 3D spatial experiences. It would not be surprising if Apple extends their Final Cut Pro and Motion video production software to support 3D spatial video. Apple developers and content creators would have a full suite of development tools to accelerate the production of immersive and spatial content and experiences.
All this new tooling will need Apple hardware to run on. At WWDC 2023, Apple unveiled the new Mac Pro armed with an M2 Ultra processor and seven PCIe expansion slots. This Mac Pro will provide the workstation-level performance pros need to create and produce the immersive and spatial experiences that will fuel the growth of the Vision Pro content ecosystem.
Much like the iPod revolutionized the music industry, the iPhone disrupted the telecommunications and PC industries, Vision Pro could very well be the device that revolutionizes the media industry once again. That would be another big bet on the part of Apple that is well beyond the device that could once again usher in a new era of computing-- spatial computing.
Leonard Lee is the founder and managing director of neXt Curve, a research advisory firm focused on Information and Communication industry and technology research. He has worked as an executive consultant and industry analyst at Gartner, IBM, PwC and EY and has advised leading companies globally on competitive strategy, product and service innovation and business transformation. Follow Leonard on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/leonard-lee-nextcurve
“Industry Voices” are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.