- Creators Apple announces Vision Pro, its first virtual reality glasses
Last Tuesday, I traveled to a lake in California, to the African savannah, to an NBA game, to a 4-year-old's birthday party, to the Jurassic, and to a completely private movie theater with a giant screen. I did it all in 30 minutes, with time to surf the web and answer a Facetime call in which I collaborated on the design of a house. And I did it, of course, with Apple Vision Pro, the mixed reality viewer that the Californian company has presented this week and that considers the first "space computer", a device in which tasks and applications happen to occupy the physical space of the reality that surrounds us.
The experience was surprising, transformative, emotional and much more realistic and satisfying than I thought possible until just a few days ago with today's technology. It's a testament to Apple's obsession with the user experience it imprints on its products and the huge ecosystem of services and technologies it has developed in recent years.
Apple didn't let me take pictures with the device on and didn't clear up many of the technical questions I still have about the product, but the demo touched on many of the use cases that were reflected on the WWDC developer conference stage.
Before putting on the Vision Pro for the first time, you have to perform a calibration process with an iPhone, scanning the geometry of the face and ear to adjust both the spatial audio and the part of the helmet that blocks outside light. In the demo area there was also an eye doctor to evaluate the vision of those who tested them and add the necessary corrective lenses in the viewfinder, which are attached magnetically.
Apple has not yet revealed what this process will look like for the end user, whether the device will be purchased with already graduated lenses or if they will be sold as an accessory. They cannot be used with glasses. Vision Pro will have several versions of the module to block the outside light, adjusting to different types of face and shape of the nasal bridge but it is evident that you can not make a custom one for each and it is not clear if several will come in the box or if it will be something that is chosen during the purchase process.
Once put on, there is a second calibration process for the eye movement control system. You have to look at different points in space and it lasts like a minute. Once the process is finished, the system is ready and you can start using it.
One of the most surprising aspects of the viewfinder is precisely this control system. The feeling at all times is that Vision Pro is reading your mind. It knows where you're looking and highlights the different elements of the interface in a subtle but perceptible way. The viewfinder has a huge collection of sensors on the outside and several of them are responsible for following the position and movement of the hands. The only other control gesture that is needed is a slight virtual "pinch" with the hand to click or scroll.
It's incredibly natural and intuitive. The hand can be in any position: resting on the leg, resting next to the body or moving in space. The viewer detects it without problems and without the gesture seeming forced. I only had to repeat one click twice during the 30 minutes I tested the device. To write long texts you can use a virtual keyboard, voice recognition or even a real keyboard connected by Bluetooth.
The headset is quite similar in weight to other virtual reality headsets. It is despite the fact that the battery goes in an external flask designed to put in your pocket. The test model had a headband that is not seen in promotional photos and is not really necessary, but recommended to reduce the tension on the face and the main adjustment tape.
It is the most comfortable virtual or mixed reality headset I have tested, both in physical fit on the face and in terms of eye fatigue. It does not cause dizziness or irritate the eyes. My experience, yes, has been limited to 30 minutes and maybe in longer sessions the feeling is different.
One of the reasons why it is so comfortable is the enormous resolution of the screens (in total they add up to 23 million pixels in a very small surface), which makes when seeing reality through Vision Pro the feeling is that of looking directly at the scene. You do not see the pixels and only when you move your head quickly you see some of the blurring and loss of definition that is expected in a video.
Although Apple has not given figures, the feeling is that the video image is captured and projected at 120 frames per second. Of all the virtual reality systems with "transparency" to see the real world that I have tried, it is the one that best achieves the effect. It is light years away from the alternatives and is the key to the incredible feeling of using them.
A UNIQUE SENSATION
Everything in Vision Pro works like in the promotional videos that Apple has shown, with that level of clarity, definition and detail and that sense of presence in the virtual elements. The scenes are not an exaggeration. Many of the alternatives that are already on the market have tried to make the idea of a "virtual desktop" with several floating screens a reality, but the low resolution and poor integration with the real scene usually ruin the result. In Vision Pro, floating windows are very sharp and the text of a website, for example, is read without problems.
In Vision Pro, details are always surprising, many of them incredibly subtle and almost imperceptible. The sound, for example, takes into account both the physical space in which the user is located and the virtual one. The headset uses external sensors to get an idea of what the voice of, say, a FaceTime call or a virtual object emitting a noise should sound like. If we are in a room it will sound different than if we are outside or "visiting" a virtual forest.
The virtual elements that float on the space have a realistic weight and inertia when manipulated and emit shadows and light effects on the surfaces of a table or sofa.
When a person approaches the digital elements also become transparent to be able to talk to them. By now everyone knows it, but the viewfinder has an external screen that shows the image of the user's eyes, creating the feeling of wearing ski or diving goggles. This allows you to maintain eye contact when talking to other people but is a bit strange. For obvious reasons it is something I have not been able to prove (I was the one wearing the helmet).
The way these elements combine is what makes the experience unlike anything we've seen so far. Apple loves to use the word "magic" to describe the result of its incredible obsession with polishing the user experience. Vision Pro is by far the product that most deserves that qualification.
It's not magic, sure, it's just technology, but it's technology combined in ways that only Apple is able to offer for its trajectory over the last two decades.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said that to create an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe. To create Vision Pro, Apple has had to become a company capable of manufacturing its own semiconductors, with enormous experience in device design, interfaces and mobility, with a catalog of apps and services with which to feed it with content, etc, etc.
Only now, with all these elements at its fingertips, can this product exist, which is more than the sum of its parts. Any attempt to make it different would result in something much more mediocre.
During the demonstration I was able to test several of the applications that Apple showed during the inaugural conference of the WWDC and that, as they recalled on several occasions, can not be seen in a two-dimensional video.
Immersion with Apple's Vision Pro virtual reality glasses
Not even in one in three dimensions, to be honest. Part of the appeal of Vision Pro is the immersive feeling you get when images take up your entire field of view.
The demo began with several of the production applications seen at the conference, opening the Messages, Photos, and Safari web browser app into multiple windows that could be freely arranged in space and expanded to the desired size. The most interesting thing about this is that these screens are very readable and sharp, indistinguishable from a monitor or a 4K television.
The photo app is the one that got me to open my mouth in a gesture of amazement – and I don't think I closed it until a few minutes into the whole experience. Seeing an immersive panoramic image is breathtaking. Also see some of the virtual landscapes that Apple has included and that can be used to block the view of the real world. The feeling of having been transported somewhere else is much better achieved than in any other virtual reality headset I've tried, such as the Quest 2 or many of HTC's Vive.
It's easy to forget that these Vision Pros are also Apple's first three-dimensional camera. They can take pictures and videos that can then be viewed in incredible detail in the viewfinder. Videos draw special attention because of the emotional component they can have. Apple showed me the same video sequence of a birthday that appeared at the conference and it was by far one of the best moments, the feeling of reliving a memory.
The other part that the demo emphasized was the entertainment function, the ability to watch a movie on a floating virtual screen of any size you want, with the background of real space or with a virtual one. It's breathtaking and the spatial audio helps bring even more realism to the action.
Vision Pro is the first device that has made me enjoy watching a movie in three dimensions. Normally the effect in movie theaters with glasses leaves a lot to be desired but in the Apple viewer to see a sequence of Avatar: the Way of Water in 3D is really a unique experience.
Of all the demonstration, the only thing I didn't find so interesting was the use of three-dimensional avatars in a video conference. The models generated by one's helmet are realistic but clearly synthetic and are at a point known as a disturbing valley – that area in which a robot or animation approaches the real behavior but not quite – that takes you a little out of the experience. It is better than the alternative of using more rudimentary versions of 3D models or a photo of the interlocutor, but there is still something to be polished.
Two additional demos complete the experience. In them, Apple shows what it's like to watch a 180-degree three-dimensional video on the device, with scenes of nature and sports. And it's incredible. This technology completely changes the experience of watching a football or basketball game, allowing perspectives of each play that are impossible on a conventional television.
The second is a three-dimensional recreation of a Jurassic landscape. A window opens on the wall of the room and the user looks directly at a volcano in which two dinosaurs walk. A butterfly flies through the air and if you extend your hand, it lands on your finger. The dinosaurs approach and it is possible to walk around the room to see them from different perspectives and admire the details of the texture. The
level of detail is admirable and the whole scene is generated in real time as an example of the power of the M2 chip that gives life to the device.
These 30 minutes with Apple Vision Pro have been the most incredible I've lived in 22 years covering technology. And I don't mean that lightly. It is an even deeper feeling that let me see live the presentation of the iPhone in 2007, more direct and personal because of how intimate it is to be in a virtual environment.
A FIRST STEP
The obstacles and limits of Vision Pro are easy to intuit. This first device is expensive, with a starting price of $3,500. hits stores early next year in the U.S. But it is not yet known if Apple will bring it to Spain and, if it does, it will be at the end of 2024 and with a price that is possibly close to 4,000 euros once taxes are added.
The autonomy of two hours is little. It almost forces you to have to be near an outlet — or use an additional larger power pack — for one of Apple's most talked about use cases, which is watching a movie. Using an external belt pack for the battery also adds an extra cable to deal with.
At Apple, I think, they are aware of these limitations. They are not exactly naïve. They know that it will be a device for a very small and select audience. The next generations will lower the price and explore the areas where these new tools fit best. They will eliminate what doesn't work and put in more than what does.
But they are also aware that they have created something unique and different, experiences that until now were not possible with the technology available, even with other virtual reality headsets.
They are experiences that can have an immense emotional charge. My mind always goes back to that three-dimensional video of a girl's birthday party and the incredible feeling of living the scene again. Or to the immersive and also three-dimensional videos of 180 degrees recorded at the foot of the track in a sporting event or in nature. They are sensations that until now no other technological product has been able to awaken and in a way they feel like the first steps in a new direction that, until a few days ago, belonged exclusively to the field of science fiction.
- Apple Inc.
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