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A case of virtual déja vu

First, let’s address the cycle of boom and bust that VR has been stuck in for decades.

In 1968, the first VR headset was launched — and immediately nicknamed “The Sword of Damocles” for the way it ominously hovered over the user’s head.

Beginning in 1969, a professor from the University of Wisconsin was able to digitize and ‘place’ humans in a computerized landscape, allowing them to manipulate the world around them. He called his invention VIDEOPLACE and said it provided a version of “augmented” reality.

By the 1980s, organizations like NASA had begun developing VR for their businesses, and in the 1990s, video games began to test out wearable headsets.

According to The Verge, development took a lower profile in the 2000s, but if you fast forward to 2014, $3.6 billion worth of venture capitalist funding flooded the sector. Its aim was to improve VR and make it the next “must have.”

That same year, Facebook (now Meta) acquired VR company Oculus Rift, and initial reviews of the Oculus Rift headset were… not good. It was prohibitively expensive, had little selection in terms of games and apps, and needed a powerful computer to operate. Subsequent iterations have seen it improve, but it never recaptured the buzz it had before its debut.

At the time, tech website VentureBeat guessed that VR would be in heavy use in doctor’s offices, banks and schools within 18 months. It wasn’t.

In 2020, The New York Times asked, “If VR is supposed to be all over the place, why is it still so niche?”

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What’s new, pussycat?

For many, it’s difficult to see how the Vision Pro is going to change the game; especially since virtual reality hasn’t yet changed our day-to-day lives in any discernible way. It seems to be stuck as a niche product for a niche audience.

But let’s look at what the Vision Pro is (it’s less Bladerunner-esque than you might think), and how it’s supposed to change the technological landscape.

It looks like a futuristic ski mask and, tech-wise, it’s a mix of a laptop and a smartphone. You issue commands with your eyes and gestures rather than scrolling or clicking.

If you want to play a video game, with your Vision Pro goggles you’ll feel like you’re actually in the game. If you want to watch a movie, the goggles can pull up your Netflix account. And if you want to make it feel like you’re watching the movie on top of a mountain, the goggles can change your environment to make it seem like you’re 5,000 miles above sea level.

Squint at this

As the first generation of a new product line for Apple, the Vision Pro is priced at $3,499 for the most basic version. Initially, Apple had said it had manufactured somewhere between 60,000 to 80,000 units for its first run, and that if they sold out, there most likely wouldn’t be any more for the rest of 2024.

In fact, pre-orders, which opened on January 19, 2024, have sold many more units than Apple claimed were available. E-game media company Dextero reported that customers had pre-ordered between 160,000 to 180,000 in the first few days. There is no word yet on how Apple will address the gap between what it said it would have and what it’s already sold.

Beyond the bare minimum price tag of $3,499, there are the charges for extras like spare charging cords, traveling cases and batteries, and the prescription you can add to the lenses if you wear glasses.

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Are they worth the trouble?

Yes, Apple seems to have created the best VR headset to date. But say you had an extra $3,499 to spend on the latest tech, would it be worth it?

Early reviews of the Vision Pro rave about the pristine quality of the graphics and note how easily adaptable it is to your own personal tastes (for example, turning up the saturation of an experience so that you’re fully immersed, or turning it down so that it’s a transparent overlay on your surroundings).

The Wall Street Journal gives it credit for not having external controllers.

Cosmopolitan says it combines the best versions of the best features of Apple computers that we’ve gotten used to — crisp photos, ease of navigation — along with innovations that we may soon rely on, like Eyesight, where the color of your goggle lenses change if you’re looking at an app, but clear when you are engaging in actual “physical life” interactions.

Apple seems to have learned from at least a few of the object lessons given by Google Glass and Oculus Rift.

The major criticism that plagued Google Glass when it was released in 2013 was that it looked and felt unfinished, like Google had launched a prototype. Its internet connection was spotty, and it seemed that the company hadn’t incorporated user feedback to make it more functional.

But with the Vision Pro, tech enthusiasts have noted that the head strap on the pre-order version is different from the prototype that Apple had initially marketed, showing that the company listened to feedback about how heavy the device was — at least partly. A review published by The Verge commented that the headset itself weighed between 600-650 grams, and the weight was all loaded on the front of your head.

The Vision Pro includes two headbands when it ships, and has a foam “light seal” that fits over the bridge of your nose.

But as The Verge points out, the headbands attach magnetically, and can therefore detach magnetically. As well, the battery for the headset is connected by a braided cable, which is only replaceable if you’re willing to cough up $199.

A vision of the future

Yes, people have been talking about how VR is here to revolutionize our lives for decades, but Apple seems to have a better chance than anyone else to actually make it happen.

The company will definitely need to lower the price to make it desirable for anyone beyond the ultra-rich or the tech-obsessed, but like with many other innovations (the personal computer, the cellphone), the first iteration of a new product is always the most expensive. As Apple builds the capacity to manufacture more headsets and there are more available, the price should become more affordable.

The possibilities of VR beyond gaming and entertainment are just as exciting. It seems that it will upend certain industries, like medicine or education. As just one example, it could be used to help surgical students practice techniques without being in the operating room: Which could lead to more doctors receiving valid credentials, faster.

It could also revolutionize the construction industry. Rather than spending resources and time building physical prototypes, designers can create a virtual simulation, allowing investors to explore modifications without going over budget.

This isn't the first time a VR device has been touted as a technological trailblazer, but if Apple can make the Vision Pro more affordable, we may actually be on our way.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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