Last Tuesday, I traveled to a lake in California, to the African savannah, to an NBA game, to a 4-year-old girl's birthday party, to Jurassic, and to a completely private movie theater with a giant screen. I did it all in 30 minutes, plus time to surf the web and answer Facetime calls where I helped design a house. And I did it, of course, with Apple Vision Pro, the mixed reality viewer that the Californian company presented this week and which it considers to be the first "space computer", a device in which tasks and applications occupy the physical space of the reality that surrounds us.
The experience was amazing, transformative, emotional, and much more realistic and fulfilling than I thought possible until just a few days ago with today's technology. It is a testament to the obsession with the user experience that Apple prints on its products and the enormous ecosystem of services and technologies that it has developed in recent years.
Apple didn't let me take pictures with the device on and it 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 the Vision Pro on for the first time, a calibration process must be carried out 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 of us who tried them and add the necessary corrective lenses to the visor, 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 pre-prescription 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 external light, adjusting to different types of face and shape of the nose bridge, but it is evident that a custom one cannot be made for each one 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 in place, there is a second calibration process for the eye movement control system. You have to look at different points in space and it lasts about 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 are looking and highlights different interface elements in a subtle but perceptible way. The visor has a huge collection of sensors on the outside and several of them are in charge of following the position and movement of the hands. The only other control gesture needed is a slight virtual "pinch" of the hand to click or scroll.
It is 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 a 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 visor is quite similar in weight to other virtual reality headsets. It is despite the fact that the battery goes in an external belt designed to be put in your pocket. The test model had an upper head strap which is not seen in the promotional photos and is not really necessary, but is recommended to reduce stress on the face and the main head strap.
It's the most comfortable virtual or mixed reality headset I've 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 the sensation may be different in longer sessions.
One of the reasons why it is so comfortable is the enormous resolution of the screens (a total of 23 million pixels in a very small area), which means that when seeing reality through Vision Pro the sensation is that of being looking directly at the scene. You don't see the pixels, and only by moving your head quickly does you see some of the blur and loss of definition that you expect 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 ahead of the alternatives and is the key to the incredible feeling that comes from using them.
Everything in Vision Pro works just like the promotional videos 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 already on the market have tried to realize the idea of a "virtual desktop" with several floating screens, but the low resolution and poor integration with the real scene often ruin the result. In Vision Pro, the floating windows are very clear and the text of a web, for example, is read without problems.
In Vision Pro the details are always surprising, many of them incredibly subtle and almost imperceptible. Sound, for example, takes into account both the physical space in which the user is located and the virtual one. The headset uses the external sensors to get an idea of what the voice of, say, a FaceTime call or a virtual object making 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.
Virtual elements floating in space have a realistic weight and inertia when manipulated, casting shadows and light effects on the surfaces of a table or sofa.
When a person approaches the digital elements they also become transparent to be able to talk to them. By now everyone knows it, but the headset has an external screen that shows the image of the user's eyes, creating the sensation of wearing ski or diving goggles. This allows you to maintain eye contact when talking to other people but it's a bit weird. For obvious reasons it is something that I have not been able to test (I was the one who had the helmet on).
The way in which these elements are combined is what makes the experience unlike anything seen before. Apple loves to use the word "magical" to describe the result of its incredible obsession with polishing the user experience. Vision Pro is by far the product that most deserves that description.
It's not magic, sure, it's just technology, but it's technology combined in ways that only Apple is able to deliver over its track record over the past two decades.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said that to create 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 those elements at your fingertips, can this product exist, which is more than the sum of its parts. Any attempt to do it differently would result in something much more mediocre.
During the demonstration I was able to test several of the applications that Apple showed during the WWDC inaugural conference and that, as they recalled on several occasions, cannot be seen in a two-dimensional video.
Not even in a three-dimensional one, to be honest. Part of the appeal of Vision Pro is the immersive feeling you get when images fill your entire field of view.
The demo began with several of the production apps seen at the conference, opening the messaging app, photos, and the Safari web browser in multiple windows that could be freely arranged in space and expanded to any desired size. The most interesting thing about this is that these screens are very readable and sharp, indistinguishable from a 4K monitor or television.
The photos application is the one that got me to open my mouth in amazement - and I think I didn't close it until a few minutes into the whole experience. Seeing an immersive panoramic image is overwhelming. Also see some of the virtual landscapes that Apple has included that can be used to block the view of the real world. The feeling of being transported to another place is much better achieved than in any other virtual reality headset I've tried, like the Quest 2 or many of HTC's Vives.
It's easy to forget that these Vision Pros are also Apple's first three-dimensional camera. They can take photos and videos that can then be viewed in incredible detail in the viewfinder. The videos especially attract attention due to the emotional component they can have. Apple showed me the same video footage 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 feature, the ability to watch a movie on a floating virtual screen of any size you like, with the background of real space or a virtual one. It's breathtaking, and the spatial audio helps make the action even more realistic.
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 Water Path in 3D is truly a unique experience.
Of the entire demo, the only thing I didn't find all that interesting was the use of 3D avatars in a video conference. The models that the helmet generates of oneself are realistic but clearly synthetic and they are in a point of the so-called uncanny valley - that area in which a robot or animation approaches the real behavior but not quite - that takes you a bit out of the experience. It's better than the alternative of using more rudimentary versions of 3D models or a photo of the interlocutor, but there's still a bit of polish to be done.
Two additional demos complete the experience. In them Apple shows what it is like to see a three-dimensional 180-degree video on the device, with scenes of nature and sports. And it's amazing. This technology completely changes the experience of watching a football or basketball game, allowing perspectives on each play that are impossible on a conventional television.
The second is a three-dimensional recreation of a Jurassic landscape. A window opens in the wall of the room and the user looks directly at a volcano where two dinosaurs are walking. A butterfly flies through the air and if you reach out your hand, it lands on your finger. The dinosaurs come up close and you can walk around the room to see them from different perspectives and admire the texture details. The level of detail is admirable and the entire scene is generated in real time as an example of the power of the M2 chip that brings the device to life.
These 30 minutes with Apple Vision Pro have been the most incredible I've experienced in 22 years covering technology. And I don't say that lightly. It's an even deeper feeling than the one that made me see the iPhone presentation live in 2007, more direct and personal because of how intimate it is to be in a virtual environment.
Vision Pro's obstacles and limits are easy to understand. This first device is expensive, with a starting price of $3,500. hits stores early next year in the US 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 a taxes are added.
The autonomy of two hours is little. It almost forces you to be near a power outlet - or use an additional larger external battery - for one of Apple's most talked about use cases, which is watching a movie. Using an external battery pack also adds an extra cable to deal with.
At Apple, I think, they are aware of these limitations. They are not exactly naive. 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 in which these new tools are a better fit. They will remove what doesn't work and put more of what does.
But they are also aware that they have created something unique and different, experiences that until now were not possible with the available technology, even with other virtual reality headsets.
These are experiences that can have an immense emotional charge. My mind always goes back to that 3D video of a girl's birthday party and the incredible feeling of living the scene again. Or to the immersive and also three-dimensional 180-degree videos recorded on the slopes at a sporting event or in nature. These are sensations that until now no other technological product has been able to arouse and in a certain 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.
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