An image from Apple’s Vision Pro promotional video. | Apple
We know what the Vision Pro does, but we’re still wondering why you would buy it. Apple seems confused, too.
Goggles. They’re goggles.
Apple CEO Tim Cook debuted the $3,500 Vision Pro headset on Monday. And we’ll have to take his word for it that these goggles use amazing tech to show you really cool things when you wear them. As we previewed last week, they can either show you a completely digital reality, or they can show you digital images superimposed on the real world around you.
Also, let’s imagine that over time we’ll see advances that will make the goggles smaller and cheaper. And that maybe one day they’ll just become glasses.
But for now, Apple’s biggest product launch in more than a decade — maybe its biggest launch since the iPhone — is a pair of goggles. If they didn’t have a power cord attached to them, you might mistake them for something you’d see on a ski slope.
For the record: Apple says Vision Pro is its entry into “spatial computing.” In practical terms that means it’s a computer you wear on your face, and that instead of staring into a phone screen or monitor, you look into the headset — and sometimes, through it to see digital images overlaid on the world around you. You can plug it into the wall or use a battery pack to power it.
Apple promises that Vision Pro can do many of the things you can do on an iPhone or MacBook: run apps, use FaceTime, watch movies. But instead of manipulating the software with a mouse or a keyboard or a touch screen, you’ll use your eye movements and hand movements, because it has cameras trained on your face as well as the outside world. We’ve seen versions of this tech before, namely Meta’s Oculus line of VR headsets. But Apple, as it often does, says its version is better, more sophisticated, and more intuitive.
So we can talk about what Vision Pro does now — or, more accurately, “early next year,” when Apple says they’ll go on sale — and what it might do down the road. But my main takeaway from Apple’s debut demo is that these things are goggles. And I have to wonder how many people want to wear goggles of any size, weight, or cost, for any amount of time.
The question was implicit throughout the demo, and Apple seemed to labor to answer it. Maybe they’ll be cool when you’re sitting at home — alone — and watching a movie: You could make the screen fill your entire living room. Maybe they’ll be cool when you’re sitting at home — alone — and want to see your kids: You could look at videos of your kids, or even talk to them on FaceTime. Maybe they’ll be cool when you’re at work — not quite alone, but not really interacting with your coworkers, either — and you want to look at multiple screens at a time: You could do that, too.
The question is also implicit in the design of the goggles themselves. Apple knows that wearing goggles cuts you off from the world, so it has created a way for people to see your eyes. Technically, it’s a video display on the front of your goggles that shows a representation of your eyes, filmed by cameras inside the goggles that are trained on your eyes, all so people won’t feel so cut off from you.
It was one of the first things the company showed off in its demo: A woman is happily browsing something online in a giant urban apartment. A younger person, maybe her daughter, wants to come interact with her.
If we stopped the movie there, it might be standard sci-fi dystopia, straight from Black Mirror. But Apple’s contention is that because the person wearing the goggles can see the person who’s not wearing the goggles — and because the person who’s not wearing the goggles can see a video screen of the goggle-wearer’s eyes — it’s actually super cool. Something you’d pay $3,500 for.
In that scene from Apple’s demo video, by the way, likely-Mom is using her Vision Pro to … look at a website for designer furniture. She seems totally into it! But it’s hard to see that her experience is much different from looking at the same site on her iPad, and Apple doesn’t explain it themselves. It wants the user to do that work, on their own.
So who is that user?
One thing Apple was uncharacteristically frank about in its demo video is that Vision Pro is a starting point for the “mixed reality” tech it has been working on for years. Good enough to sell, eventually. Good enough for Disney CEO Bob Iger to endorse via an onstage appearance. It was explicitly rolling this out now, more than half a year before it will start shipping them, at Apple’s annual developers conference so that developers can make stuff for the goggles.
And some developers most certainly will. Even if you don’t believe Vision Pro or subsequent models are going to be mass market devices in the near future, the promise of being a star app in Apple’s prized new platform-to-be will be an exceptionally powerful lure.
But, again, Apple doesn’t imagine that the stuff it showed off today is where it’s going to stop. The expectation is that it will get cheaper, better, lighter, with longer-lasting batteries, etc. Go find the original 2007 model of the iPhone and compare it to the one you have today.
But the Catch-22 is that until someone does create something truly remarkable and compelling and useful — and, crucially, something you can’t do with the phones and computers Apple sells today — it’s going to be very hard to convince people to wear these things. Which means there’s less incentive for the brightest minds to make that killer app, and no incentive to strap these things on.
Caveat! All of this takes time. Developers didn’t make apps for the iPhone for a year following its debut. And once they did, they made a lot of crap. Apple still has an admonition in its developer guidelines, written in 2010, telling programmers that it has all the fart apps it needs, thank you very much.
The bigger caveat is that people may end up loving the idea of putting on goggles, tuning out the world, and retreating to their own digital worlds. They’re pretty much doing that already with phones and earbuds (or, as I increasingly see on the subway or in the park, just blasting the audio out to everyone around them, whether they want to hear it or not). So what’s an additional piece of hardware to strap to their face?
But I don’t think Apple truly believes that’s what people want. If they did, why didn’t Cook and Iger wear the goggles themselves in their demo? The trick will be figuring out what they do want.