Making VR Headsets Cool Won’t Be Easy, Even for Apple

Making VR Headsets Cool Won’t Be Easy, Even for Apple

After years of anticipation, Apple’s first major new product in nearly a decade has arrived. The $3,500 Vision Pro, a face computer that resembles ski goggles, will be released next week.

So, what can we expect?

The device, which includes high-resolution displays and sensors that track eye movements and hand gestures, is one of Apple’s most ambitious products. It bills the headset as the beginning of an era of “spatial computing,” which blends data with the physical world to make our lives better. Imagine giving a presentation with digital notes shown in the corner of your eye, for example.

I was among the first group of journalists to try the Vision Pro last year and walked away impressed with the quality of the picture but ultimately not sure that people would want to wear it. My skepticism was colored by my experience wearing more than a dozen headsets in the last 12 years from companies like Google, Meta, Snap, Samsung and Sony, including virtual reality goggles that plugged into bulky desktop computers and smart glasses that shot photos. The devices were intended to create immersive experiences for getting things done by moving the body instead of typing on keyboards.

Broadly speaking, the problem with headsets has less to do with technology and more to do with behavior: People quickly get tired of wearing a computer on their face, the devices end up in closets, and software developers lose interest in making apps. Sales of mixed reality and virtual reality headsets fell 8.3 percent last year, according to the research firm IDC, though they may rebound this year with Apple entering the market.

Even though Apple has a reputation for being late to the party with superior products, as it was with music players and smartphones, the Vision Pro is not guaranteed to be a breakthrough hit, especially with its breathtaking price.

“Is this Apple entering a market late but coming in with the best product and therefore will be successful?” asked Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst and former Apple marketing director. “Or is there not an existing market because there are no $3,500 headsets aimed for the mass market?”

To better understand how an Apple face computer may (or may not) fit into our lives in the future, it’s worth taking this moment to look back at the many face computers I’ve worn that set the scene for the Vision Pro.

In 2012, Google unveiled a mixed-reality headset, Google Glass. It was essentially a headband with a camera and a monocle, positioned above your right eye, that contained a transparent display showing calendar and maps software. To demonstrate its exciting potential, Google produced a video of people wearing the face computer while leaping out of an airplane.

When I tried an early prototype of Google Glass that year, the only working feature was a maps app that showed directions as I walked around a path. This could be useful, in theory, to keep my eyes on the road while driving or bicycling, but at a significant cost: I looked like a “Star Trek” character.

Sure enough, after Google Glass made its public debut, pandemonium ensued. A blogger in San Francisco was assaulted for wearing one. Memes emerged, including the term “Glasshole” for anyone who could potentially be recording video of people without their permission. Google eventually marketed the monocle as a business device, but finally killed the product in 2023.

After Google Glass flopped, the tech industry regrouped and tried to address the design and privacy issues. In 2016 and 2021, Snap and Meta released stylish glasses with cameras and tiny lights that indicated when a user was recording. Both products were unpopular. I recently tested the second-generation Meta glasses and concluded that while they looked satisfyingly hip, the privacy concerns remained because no one noticed when I was taking pictures of them.

The tech industry was also eager to sell people on a different type of headset for virtual reality. The headsets, which looked like plastic goggles, blocked out your view of the outside world to immerse yourself in a 3-D digital environment and experience something as if you were actually there — by moving your head around to look at the Grand Canyon, for example.

To make virtual reality headsets an easier sell, tech companies like Google and Samsung tried relying on smartphones for their screens and computing power. In 2015, Samsung collaborated with the virtual reality company Oculus to design Gear VR, a headset into which the user could insert a smartphone to look at virtual reality content. In 2016, Google released Daydream VR, a similar product for Android phones.

While the products lowered the cost for people to try VR, I ran into problems with them. The smartphones running VR software became very hot, their batteries drained rapidly and the applications were gimmicky — one simulation I tried involved staring at a virtual dinosaur. Google killed Daydream VR in 2019, and Samsung announced the end of its VR content services in 2020.

In 2016, Oculus, which Meta had acquired for $2 billion two years earlier, released the Oculus Rift, a high-end VR system that plugged into a powerful desktop computer. The full bundle, which included the headset, a game controller and a computer, cost $1,500. With 30 games at launch, the product was marketed as a next-generation gaming device.

Virtual reality games were designed to let you move around as if you were inside the game. A shooting game could involve looking for guns and bending over and using motion controllers to pick up them up and fire them at opponents.

Other similar products followed, including Sony’s $400 PlayStation VR, a headset that plugged into PlayStation consoles. For years, the PlayStation headset dominated the high-powered virtual reality space because it lowered costs by eliminating the need to buy a separate computer. The second-generation PlayStation headset came out last year.

Nonetheless, a Sony executive recently called virtual reality a “challenging category” because VR had not changed much for the games industry. Most people still prefer to play video games on a television.

In my experience testing all of these products over the years, they shared the same flaws: The headsets felt heavy, the hardware and wires created clutter in a living room, and there weren’t many compelling games to play.

Stand-alone headsets, which cram the computer, display and sensor technologies into one product, have become the most convenient VR products to date. Since 2019, Meta’s Quest headsets, which range from $250 to $1,000, have used this approach, but the products are still not mainstream hits.

Last year, Meta released the $500 Quest 3, its first consumer headset with a focus on mixed reality, which uses cameras to see into the real world while using the headset. When firing a gun inside a shooting game, you can take cover behind the couch in your living room, for example. In my tests, I concluded that while the graphics had greatly improved, the headset felt too heavy on my neck after about 15 minutes. I also felt unimpressed with the games and the device’s short battery life of two hours.

This brings us all to the product in question: the Vision Pro, which Apple is marketing as a productivity tool to replace your laptop with a virtual screen and digital keyboard, a 3-D movie player and a gaming device.

At 21 ounces, the Vision Pro is just as heavy as Meta’s products, and my eyes and neck felt similarly fatigued after I wore it for half an hour.

The Apple headset’s battery, a separate brick that connects to the goggles via a wire, delivers two hours of life like Meta’s — not enough to finish most feature-length movies, let alone get much work done.

As for games, no major game studio has yet announced any made specifically for the Vision Pro. The headset does include an app for looking at a 3-D dinosaur, though.

Kyle C. Garrison

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