Vision Pro Isn’t VR

Notes on the UX of virtual reality

Published June 7, 2023
While Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset is the current major player on the market, I don’t know anyone who owns one. You can occasionally spot them out in the wild, usually at a tech/art fair. I politely usher myself along to the next piece, since the last thing I want to do is put giant white goggles on my head and wave around blindly in front of a crowd. Upon its release in 2020, there was moderate hype at the time, in part due to its reasonable price point and intense public curiosity at this major technological development. But since then, relative silence. We hear lots of news from Zuckerberg’s corner, how his board members are begging him to stop investing in the metaverse, and how Zuck won’t rest until we’re all uploading ourselves into it, an ambition which has since fallen into despair.

Apple’s new Vision Pro will feature a refined ski-goggle-esque design, with a transparent screen that clouds over when in use. If a person pops into your line of vision, they will also appear from the external world into your virtual landscape, and the goggles will clear so the visitor can see your eyes. The goggles look decidedly less funny than its predecessors: Meta’s Quest, Snapchat Spectacles, and Google Glass. But it will be years, if ever, before the VR headset will look cool. The distinction here is that VR equipment is meant to be used in the home, whereas Google Glass, the Apple Watch, and the Bluetooth earpiece were made to be carried around with you. These are examples of tech that you wear, rather than use.


What this all boils down to is optics—both external (how others perceive you while wearing it) and internal (how it either blinds you from the world, or how it blends the world with your virtual reality). The Vision Pro glasses will remedy many of the complaints people made about its predecessors, even if it doesn’t prove to be as functional as Apple has pitched—to launch a VR device that actually meets everyone’s expectations on its first launch would be a truly herculean miracle.

To create a streamlined VR experience, there are many components of our natural activity that either need to be recreated or improved upon in order for users to incorporate it into their routine. For VR to fulfill the expectation that we will one day spend significant amounts of our time in it, it will have to imitate the ease with which we interface with our natural world, and offer new experiences that can’t occur within it. Apple’s pitch has promised to deliver on the former, but I fail to see how the experiences it offers aren’t already accessible to us.

If Vision Pro delivered on both of these fronts, then it justifies the ludicrously high price point ($3,499), but I still struggle to understand whether or not this is anything other than a phone or computer, but bigger. We’re already familiar with the world of our Macs, iPhones, iPads. But, how is any of this reality? It is a world of its own, sure. But I’d reckon most people don’t want to fully inhabit a dimension where all they can see is their iPhone Home Screen. The fact that it places apps into your surroundings separates the device from the idea of true VR. Apple markets the headset as a spatial computer, although the promo insinuates that users will be able to engage in full-screen activity, most likely movies and games. This is a truer version of a virtual reality, especially if the available games will include an interactive component with the body. However, this doesn’t seem to be the goal of the Vision Pro—rather, it is a replacement for the iPhone and the MacBook.

While users might question the practicality of this invention, our user patterns show that we have been begging for it. The frequency with which we use our devices have almost made them into AR products in their own right. We bring them into our reality constantly throughout the day. With Vision Pro, there is no more checking, unlocking, and putting back. You are either with the device or without it. However, the optics of the headset make it unlikely that users will bring it out of their homes, and into the world. This means we must supplement it with more discreet devices—so don’t throw away your iPhone.

The progress of VR is vital to Big Tech’s future, but the goal they’re trying to reach is unclear. When Zuckerberg vowed to create an immersive metaverse, this represented a more understandable goalpost. You will work in the metaverse, you will socialize in the metaverse, you will exist in the metaverse. You won’t need to leave the house!

Further, Google Glass had a more practical raison d’être. Glass was conceived as a productivity tool that integrated your calendar and communication; it was born to be brought around with the user throughout their day. Supporting their reality, rather than creating a new one. But its functionalities were too limited, along with its aesthetic problems (personally, I think they looked kind of cool). The replacement we have deemed acceptable is the Apple Watch, which keeps the same basic functionalities of Google Glass, in addition to most affordances that we get from the iPhone. The watch succeeds because it’s packaged in a sleeker, more discreet, and less invasive hardware.

But don’t we want invasion? Isn’t the whole point of VR to invade our reality, cover it up, and provide us with a new one? This is the distinction between AR and VR. AR fits into your daily life, enables the user to move around the world with it, while VR removes you from it. This also creates a hard line between practical tech and a video game. The practical nature of our lives insist that we don’t need a true VR device, exhibited by the popularity (or lack thereof) of the Meta Quest 2. But Vision Pro fails on both of these fronts. It is neither an out-of-doors AR device, nor a true VR experience. It sits in the category of mixed reality, situated between the two.

In the end, Apple will use this as a launch point to continue developing new experiences we haven’t already encountered in our physical world, or in the tech we already use. For now, I will support the product, so long as FKA twigs directs a commercial that barely addresses its functionalities, but features her looking up “YouTube dominant krumping” on her Vision Pro.


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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

Run by @hard_boiledbabe