On Monday I got a glimpse of what Apple envisions for the future of computing. For almost half an hour I wore the $3,500 Vision Pro, the company’s first high-tech viewfinder due out next year.
I left with mixed feelings, plus a lingering sense of skepticism.
On the one hand, I was impressed with the quality of the viewer that Apple heralds as ushering in an era of “spatial computing,” where digital data is mixed with the physical world to unlock new capabilities. For example, imagine using a viewer to assemble a piece of furniture while instructions are digitally projected onto the parts or cooking a dish while the recipe unfolds in the corner of your eye.
Apple’s device has high-resolution video, intuitive controls, and fits comfortably—in fact, it felt better than my experiences with headsets designed in the past decade by Meta, Magic Leap, sony and others.
However, after using the new viewer to view photos and interact with a virtual dinosaur, I also felt that there wasn’t much new. And the experience gave me a “yuck” factor that I had never experienced with an Apple product. Comment on this later.
adjustment and control
Lets start by the beginning. After Apple introduced the viewfinder on Monday, in what was its first major release since the Apple Watch in 2015, I was allowed to try out a pre-production model of the Vision Pro. Apple staff took me to a private room at Apple headquarters. the company in Silicon Valley and sat in an armchair for a demo.
Resembling a pair of ski goggles, the Vision Pro has a white USB cable that plugs into a silver battery pack I slipped into my pants pocket. To use I turned a knob on the side of the visor to custom fit my face and secured a Velcro strap over my head.
Then press a metal button located on the front of the device to turn it on. After completing the setup process, which involved seeing a moving dot so the viewfinder could track my eye movements. The Vision Pro has a suite of sensors to track eye movements, hand gestures, and voice commands, which are the main modes of control. Looking at an icon is the equivalent of hovering over it with your mouse; To press a button, you bring your thumb and index finger together in a quick pinch, which is the equivalent of clicking a mouse.
That gesture is also used to grab and use the apps on the screen. It’s intuitive and less clunky than using the motion controllers that often come with competing devices.
However, many questions occurred to me. What other hand gestures would the viewer recognize for gaming? How efficient will voice controls be if Siri’s voice transcription on phones currently doesn’t work well? Apple doesn’t yet know what other gestures will be supported, and it wouldn’t let me test voice controls.
Then it was time for app demos that show how the viewer can enrich our everyday lives and help us stay connected to each other.
He first showed me how to view photos and a video of a birthday celebration in the viewfinder. I was able to turn a dial near the front of the Vision Pro counterclockwise to make photo backgrounds more transparent so I could see the real world, including the Apple employees around me, but turning it clockwise opposite direction the photograph becomes more opaque and I could immerse myself in it.
Apple also had me open a meditation app in the viewfinder that displayed 3D animations while calming music played and a voice guided my breathing. However, the meditation did not prepare me for what was to come: a video call.
A small window appeared, a notification of a FaceTime call from an Apple employee who was also using the headset. I stared at the answer button and clasped my fingers to take the call.
The employee who called me was using a “persona,” a 3D animated avatar of herself that the viewer created using a scan of her face. Apple believes that video conferencing through these “personas” is a more intimate way for people to communicate and even collaborate in virtual space.
The Apple employee’s facial expressions looked lifelike, and her mouth movements were in sync with what she was saying. However, due to the digital rendering of her avatar, with the smooth texture of her face and the lack of shadows, I could tell it was fake. She recorded me on video holograms that she had seen in sci-fi movies like Minority report: Previous sentence.
In the FaceTime session, the Apple employee and I were supposed to collaborate to make a 3D model in an app called Freeform. But I just stared at her blankly, thinking about what I was seeing. After three years of being in near-isolation during the pandemic, Apple wanted him to interact with what was essentially a deepfake video of a real person. I could feel how my body refused to participate. My sense of “revulsion” may have been what technologists have long described as the “uncanny valley” (or “uncanny valley” in English), a feeling of uneasiness when a human sees the creation of a machine that seems all too human.
A technological feat? Yeah. A feature you’d want to use with other people every day? In the short term, maybe not.
To wrap up the session on a fun note, Apple showed a simulation of a dinosaur coming towards me when I reached out. I have seen more than one digital dinosaur in virtual reality (almost every headset manufacturer that has demonstrated it to me in the last seven years has used a simulation of Jurassic Park), and that did not excite me.
After the demo, I drove home and processed the experience as I navigated through rush hour traffic.
Over dinner, I talked to my wife about the Vision Pro. I told her that Apple’s viewfinder looked and felt better than the competition. However, he wasn’t sure if that mattered.
Other Sony PlayStation and Meta headsets were much cheaper and quite powerful and entertaining, especially for playing video games. However, when guests wore a dinner and tried on the headset, they lost interest after less than half an hour because the experience was exhausting and they felt socially disconnected from the group they were with.
Would it matter if they could turn the dial on the viewfinder to see the real world while using it? I suspect they would still feel isolated, because they might be the only ones in the room wearing a visor.
Most important to me, however, was the idea of connecting with others, including family and colleagues, through Apple viewers.
I told my wife, “Your mom is getting old. When you FaceTime her, would you rather see her ultrafake digital avatar of her or a lower quality video call where she holds the phone camera in front of her face at an unflattering angle?
“The latest,” he replied without hesitation. “This is real. Although I prefer to see it in person.
Brian X. Chen is a consumer technology columnist. He reviews products and writes Tech Fix, a column on solving technology-related problems. Before joining The Times in 2011, he reported on Apple and the wireless industry for Wired. @bxchen