Monday, May 20

Apple Vision Pro review: First headset lacks polish and purpose

About 17 years ago, Steve Jobs took the stage at a San Francisco convention center and said he would introduce three products: an iPod, a phone and an Internet browser.

“These are not three separate devices,” he said. “This is a device and we’ll call it iPhone.”

At $500, the first iPhone was relatively expensive, but I couldn’t wait to ditch my mediocre Motorola cell phone and splurge. There were flaws, including slow cellular internet. But the iPhone kept its promises.

Over the past week, I’ve had a very different experience with a new first-generation Apple product: the Vision Pro, a virtual reality headset that resembles a pair of ski goggles. The $3,500 wearable computer, launched Friday, uses cameras so you can see the outside world while juggling apps and videos.

Apple calls it a “spatial computer” that blends the physical and digital worlds together allowing people to work, watch movies and play games.

Apple declined to provide an advance review unit to the New York Times, so on Friday I bought a Vision Pro. (It costs well over $3,500 with add-ons that many people will want, including a $200 case, AirPods from $180 and $100 prescription lens inserts for people who wear glasses.) After using the headset for about five days, I’m not convinced that people will get much value out of it.

The device feels less refined than previous first-generation Apple products I’ve used. It’s no better for work than a computer, and the games I’ve tried so far aren’t fun, which makes it hard to recommend. One notable feature, the ability to make video calls with a human-like digital avatar that resembles the wearer, terrified children during a family FaceTime call.

The headphones are excellent at delivering on one of its promises: playing videos, including high-definition movies and 3-D personal recordings that let you immerse yourself in past memories, which is both haunting and interesting.

Over the past decade, companies like Meta, HTC, and Sony have struggled to sell headphones to mainstream consumers because their products were uncomfortable to wear, their apps were limited, and they looked uncool.

Vision Pro has a superior user interface, better image quality, more apps and more computing power than other headsets. But it’s slightly heavier than Meta’s cheaper Quest headphones, and it plugs into an external battery that lasts just two hours.

The aesthetics of the Apple product’s ski goggles look better than the bulky plastic visors of headphones of the past. But the videos posted by early users go around out with headphones — men I call Vision Bros — confirm that people still look ridiculous wearing tech glasses, even when they’re designed by Apple.

Vision Pro is far ahead of other headsets I’ve tested in creating an immersive 3D interface that’s easy to control with your eyes and hands. I let four colleagues wear the headphones in the office and watched them learn to use them in seconds.

That’s because it’s familiar to anyone who owns an iPhone or similar smartphone. You’ll see a grid of app icons. Looking at an app is equivalent to hovering over it with the mouse cursor; to click on it, touch your thumb and forefinger together, making a quick pinch. The pinch gesture can also be used to move and expand windows.

Vision Pro includes a knob called Digital Crown. By rotating it counterclockwise you can see the real world in the background while keeping the digital windows of your apps in the foreground. Rotating it clockwise hides the real world with an opaque background.

I preferred to see into physical reality most of the time, but I still felt isolated. The headset cuts off part of your periphery, creating a binocular-like effect. I confess that it was sometimes difficult to remember to walk my dogs because I couldn’t see them or hear their moans, and on another session I tripped over a stool. An Apple spokesperson referenced the Vision Pro’s safety guidelines, which advise users to eliminate obstacles.

When you use headphones for work, you can surround yourself with multiple mobile apps: your spreadsheet can be in the center, a notes app on your right, and a browser on your left, for example. It’s the 3D version of juggling windows on a computer screen. As clear as it may seem, pinching mobile screens doesn’t make your work more efficient because you have to keep turning your head to see them.

I could tolerate juggling a notes app, a browser, and the Microsoft Word app for no more than 15 minutes before feeling nauseous.

The least joyful part of the Vision Pro is typing with the floating keyboard, which requires you to press one key at a time. I had planned to write this review with headphones on before realizing I would miss the deadline.

There is an option to attach a physical keyboard, but at that point I’d rather use a laptop that doesn’t add weight to my face.

Vision Pro can also work with Mac computers, where you can mirror your screen into the headset as a virtual window that can be expanded to look like a large display. In my testing, there was a constant lag: Each key press took a fraction of a second to virtually register, and the mouse cursor moved slowly. I also instinctively wanted to control the Mac with pinches, even though it’s not set up to work that way, which was frustrating.

I next tested the headset in the kitchen, loading a pizza recipe into my web browser while grabbing and measuring ingredients. As I moved while looking through the camera, I felt nauseous again and had to take off my headphones. The Vision Pro is more comfortable to use while sitting. Apple recommends people take breaks to reduce motion sickness.

Video calls are now an essential part of office life, and here the Vision Pro falls particularly short of a laptop with a camera. The headset uses its cameras to take photos of your face that are stitched into a 3-D avatar called Persona, which Apple has labeled a “beta” feature because it isn’t completed.

The people are so awkward that people will be embarrassed to use them on a business call. The Vision Pro produced an unflattering portrait of me with no cheekbones and blurry ears. In a FaceTime call with my in-laws, they said the blur evoked vibes of ’80s studio portraits.

One of my nieces, a 3-year-old girl, turned and walked away at the sight of her virtual Uncle Brian. The other, a 7-year-old girl, hid behind her father, whispering in his ear: “It seems fake.”

Video is where the Vision Pro shines. When streaming movies via apps like Disney+ and Max, you can pinch the corner of a video and drag to expand it to a high-resolution jumbo TV; some films, such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Avatar 2,” can be viewed in 3-D. The image appears much brighter and clearer than the quality of Meta’s Quest products. The audio quality on Apple headphones is excellent, but the speakers are loud, so you’ll need AirPods if you want to use them in public spaces.

The headphones’ two-hour battery life isn’t long enough to last through most feature films, but in my experience, this proved questionable because I couldn’t watch movies for more than 20 to 30 minutes before needing to rest my head. my neck and eyes from the heavy cap.

(One caveat: Netflix and YouTube apps aren’t available on the Vision Pro, but their websites work well for streaming content.)

I prefer watching movies on my flat-screen TV because it can be shared, but there are scenarios where headphones would be useful as a personal television, like in a small apartment or on a plane, or on the couch while someone else is watching a TV show from which you would like to log out.

Videos taken with the iPhone 15 Pro camera or the Vision Pro cameras can be viewed in 3D on the headphones, a feature called spatial video. While watching a video of my dogs eating treats at home, I could reach out and pretend to pet them. The videos looked grainy but they were delicious.

There aren’t many games made for headsets yet. I tried some new Vision Pro games like Blackbox, which involves moving around a 3D environment to pop bubbles and solve puzzles. It looked nice, but after the novelty wore off, my interest waned. It’s hard to recommend the Vision Pro for virtual reality gaming when the $250 Quest 2 and $500 Quest 3 Meta headsets have a more in-depth game library.

The Vision Pro is the start of something: what, exactly, I’m not sure.

But the purpose of a product review is to evaluate the here and now. As it stands, the Vision Pro is an impressive but incomplete first-generation product, with issues and major compromises. Aside from being a luxury personal TV, it lacks purpose.

What strikes me about the Vision Pro is, for such an expensive computer, how difficult it is to share the headset with others. There is a guest mode, but you can’t create profiles for different family members to upload their own apps and videos.

So it’s a computer to use alone, which comes at a time when we’re trying to reconnect after years of masked loneliness. This may be the Vision Pro’s biggest blind spot.