April 24, 2024

On Monday, I got a peek at Apple’s vision for the future of computing. For about half an hour, I wore the $3,500 Vision Pro, the company’s first high-tech goggle due to be released next year.

I left with mixed feelings, including lingering doubts.

On the one hand, I’m impressed by the quality of the headphones, which Apple calls the beginning of the era of “spatial computing,” where digital data merges with the physical world to unlock new capabilities. Imagine, for example, assembling furniture while wearing headphones while digitally projecting instructions onto the parts, or cooking with a recipe displayed in the corner of your eye.

Apple’s devices feature high-resolution video, intuitive controls, and a comfortable fit that’s better than anything I’ve used Meta, Magic Leap, sony and others.

But after wearing the new headset to view photos and interact with virtual dinosaurs, I also don’t think there’s much new to see here. This experience triggers a “gross” factor with Apple products that I’ve never had before. More on that later.

Let me start from the beginning. On Monday, Apple unveiled its first major new product since the Apple Watch in 2015, and after Apple announced the headset, I was given permission to try a preproduction model of the Vision Pro. Apple staff took me to a private room at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters, where I sat on a couch for a presentation.

The Vision Pro, like a pair of ski goggles, has a white USB cable that plugs into a silver battery pack that I tuck into my jeans pocket. To wear it on my face, I turned a knob on the side of the headset to adjust for comfort, and secured a Velcro strap around my head.

I press the metal button on the front of the device to turn it on. I then went through a setup process that involved looking at a moving dot so the headset could lock onto my eye movements. The Vision Pro has an array of sensors to track eye movements, gestures and voice commands, which are the main ways to control it. Viewing an icon is the equivalent of hovering the mouse cursor over an icon; to press a button, you tap your thumb and index finger together, a quick pinch, which is the equivalent of clicking a mouse.

The pinch gesture is also used to grab and move apps around the screen. It’s intuitive and feels less clunky than waving around the motion controllers that typically come with competing phones.

But it raises questions. What other gestures will the headset recognize for gaming? If Siri’s voice transcription on phones doesn’t currently work very well, how good will voice control be? Apple isn’t sure what other gestures will be supported, and it didn’t let me try voice control.

Then it’s app demo time, showing how headphones can enrich our daily lives and help us stay connected.

Apple first took me to the photos and video of the birthday party on the headphones. I can turn the dial near the front of the Vision Pro counterclockwise to make the background of the photo more transparent and see the real world, including the Apple employees around me, or turn it clockwise to make the photo more opaque and immerse myself in it.

Apple also let me open a meditation app in the headphones, which displayed a 3D animation while playing soothing music and a voice telling me to breathe. But meditation couldn’t prepare me for what came next: a video call.

A small window pops up — a notification of a FaceTime call from another Apple employee wearing a headset. I stared at the answer button and squeezed it to answer the call.

The Apple employee on the video call is using a “persona,” an animated 3D avatar of herself created by a headset scanning her face. Apple describes video conferencing via personas as a more intimate way for people to communicate and even collaborate in a virtual space.

The Apple employee’s facial expressions appear to come to life, with her mouth movements synchronized with her speech. But since her avatar was digitally rendered, with even texture and no shadows on her face, I could tell it was fake. It’s similar to the video holograms I’ve seen in sci-fi movies like “Minority Report.”

In a FaceTime session, the Apple employee and I were supposed to collaborate on making 3D models in an app called Freeform. But I stare at it blankly, thinking about what I’ve seen. After being quarantined for three years during the pandemic, Apple wanted me to participate in what was essentially a real-life deepfake. I can feel myself shutting down.My ‘gross’ feeling may be what technologists have long described uncanny valleythe uneasy feeling humans feel when they see a machine creation that looks too much like a human.

A technical feat? Yes. Features that I actually want to use with other people on a daily basis? Probably not anytime soon.

To end the demo with something interesting, Apple showed a simulation of a dinosaur moving towards me when I held out my hand. I’ve seen more digital dinosaurs in VR than I deserve (nearly every headset maker that’s given me a VR demo in the past seven years has shown a Jurassic Park simulation), and I’m not thrilled about it .

After the demo, I drove home and processed the experience during rush hour.

Over dinner, my wife and I talked about the Vision Pro. I say, the Apple Goggles look and feel better than competing headphones. But I’m not sure if that matters.

Meta and Sony PlayStation’s other headsets are less expensive, powerful and entertaining, especially when playing video games. But whenever we have guests over for dinner and they try on the goggles, within half an hour they lose interest because the experience is exhausting and they don’t feel socially connected to the team.

Would it matter if they could turn the dial on the front of the headset to see the real world while wearing it? I suspect it still feels isolating since they might be the only ones in the room wearing it.

But even more important to me is the idea of ​​connecting with others, including family and colleagues, through the Apple headphones.

“Your mother is old,” I said to my wife. “Would you rather see her deepfake digital avatar when you FaceTiming her, or worse, a video call where she holds her phone camera up to her face at an unflattering angle?”

“The latter.” She said without hesitation. “That’s true. Though, I’d much rather see her in person.”

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