Apple launches Vision Pro mixed reality headset into unproven niche market

Design hailed but analysts worry tech giant will face hurdles that have stopped other VR firms delivering mass-market appeal

Apple chief executive Tim Cook next to the new Apple Vision Pro mixed reality headset on display during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There may have been excitement among the tech faithful when Apple finally revealed its upcoming mixed reality headset, but elsewhere the reaction has been more muted.

The Vision Pro promises a lot, with two high resolution displays and a premium design that borrows from other Apple devices. The digital crown from the Apple Watch, for example, has been repurposed to access the home screen on the device, or to control the level of immersion in the digital world. And the whole experience leans heavily on content you may already be familiar with through your iPhone or iPad.

But there are several hurdles for the Vision Pro to overcome, including a general scepticism about the appeal of mixed reality experiences, and the cost of the headset. At $3,500, the Apple headset isn’t a budget buy that will have mass market appeal, instantly limiting its market. But the headset itself is designed to be a premium product, and Apple has in the past opted for quality over quantity in designing and building its products.

On Twitter, former Apple designer and Nest founder Tony Fadell said the hardware was a “technological tour de force”. However, he raised concerns about the consumer apps, the price and the focus of the product. “This is not a painkiller,” he wrote. “Platforms don’t become useful products. Useful products become platforms.”

READ MORE

He wasn’t the only one to praise the design. CCS Insight analyst Leo Gebbie said the headset made a “striking first impression” and praised the overall experience, while also cautioning that it would continue to face some of the existing hurdles that other virtual reality companies have experienced.

“Apple’s repeated its classic trick of taking a technology and making it simple, streamlined and accessible for everyone to use,” he said. “But we have to remember that this really isn’t a mass market consumer device yet. It’s an ultra-premium, experimental device aimed at businesses, developers and enthusiasts, and it may be years before an Apple headset truly hits the mainstream.”

He noted the technology can be isolating rather than a shareable experience, which Apple has tried to address through video passthrough capabilities. Overall though, he said he had a “sense of real excitement” for the Vision Pro.

'They are like heroin addicts, spending more and more money': The US debt ceiling explained

Listen | 37:26

Insider Intelligence principal analyst Yory Wurmser noted the Vision Pro could do at least two things that other mix and virtual reality headsets had so far missed the mark on — bringing users into their environment rather than opting for the VR-first approach of the Meta Quest, and providing a decent operating system, with gesture controls that eliminate the need for external controllers.

However, he raised some questions about the device’s future. “Who will pay $3,500 for the device? Some enterprises will jump at this device, as will wealthy adopters — but will others?” he asked. “Do people want these VR and tethered AR [augmented reality] experiences at all? Apple for years has scoffed at the idea that people will wear headsets. They’ve worked hard to make this headset as integrated into the real world as current technology allows, but it’s still a headset.”

He also questioned the delay in getting the headset into the hands of users but said first impressions had overcome some of his scepticism. “A lot of questions remain, but this is clearly a device that only Apple could have designed today.”

The stock market was also less certain that Apple would make the Vision Pro the next big thing, falling 0.8 per cent after hitting a record high in the hours ahead of the product launch on Monday.

What Vision Pro needs, however, is a killer app that will take the headset from niche novelty to a game-changer. Apple has a tough task ahead of it, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t make a success.

“If the device were eventually to drive a platform shift from mobile to AR, Apple has positioned itself to extend its leadership from the smartphone era to that new epoch,” said James Cordwell of Atlantic Equities.

“If it fails to gain traction, then it will most likely be because VR/AR is a technological dead end, thus extending the dominance of the smartphone as the primary consumer device.”

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist