This is a defining moment that validates the trailblazing work of all of us in the VR learning industry.
The future of “spatial learning” just arrived. Again.
The most valuable company on the planet unveiled the high-end aspirational virtual and augmented reality headset the industry needed and only Apple could deliver. Its iPhone magic is sure to ignite a fire in the industry, spurring a fresh wave of competition and innovation. With Apple joining the fray that Meta/Facebook has dominated, we’re likely to see Samsung and other contenders soon. If history is any guide, Apple enters any new product market just as it’s primed for widespread adoption. This is a defining moment that validates the trailblazing work of all of us in the virtual reality learning industry. We were not crazy after all. The future of learning really is spatial.
The “Apple Vision Pro” is not just named for its stunning visual display, but also for its pioneering vision-based user interface. Just glance at an icon and it highlights. Pinch your fingers in your lap to interact with it. This eye and “lazy finger gesture” combo seems destined to become the computer mouse of mixed reality. And Apple‘s fresh take extends to marketing and positioning. VR is now rebranded as “fully immersive experiences,” “headset” is “spatial computer,” avatars are “personas,” “AI” is “machine learning,” and “metaverse” is “environments,” all in an effort to reach a broader mass market and shed the baggage of earlier VR efforts.
As the $3,500 price point and “pro” name suggest, this is an enterprise device. Yet, there were no demos of factories or hospitals, digital twins or job simulators at the launch event. Instead, it featured people sitting on couches interacting with giant Excel and PowerPoint screens and talking to avatars floating around the room. Apple is focusing on office productivity and collaboration. If anyone can make people read emails and hold meetings Minority Report-style wearing a computer on their face, it would be Apple.
The Vision Pro is an augmented reality device that makes virtual objects appear in the physical world. Unlike HoloLens and Magic Leap which use transparent lenses, it uses front-facing cameras to beam a video view of the physical environment, similar to the Quest Pro and forthcoming Quest 3, yet with much higher resolution. It’s not designed for AR assistance out in the field. You wouldn’t want to operate hazardous equipment or perform surgery watching a live stream video of your surroundings. This is AR for the conference room, classroom and living room.
That’s not to say the Apple Vision Pro doesn’t excel at realistic job simulations. With display quality and pass-through cameras that rival the $6,000-plus PC-tethered Varjo headsets used by the military, Apple is setting the stage for hyper-realistic mixed-reality simulations.
Imagine overlaying a digital experience on physical mannequins for medical training or a real cockpit for flight training, blending tactile experiences of physical simulators with a diverse array of virtual scenarios. The Apple headset is equally well-suited for immersive VR simulations. Don’t get fooled by Apple’s “don’t say VR” rhetoric, this is a full-fledged VR headset that wraps around the eyes and creates a complete sense of presence in a virtual workplace. It even sports an Apple Watch-style crown to dial the level of VR immersion. With a simple twist, your real-world room can morph into an entirely virtual scene where experiential and visceral learning can take place.
Apple’s commitment to VR is evident in its partnership with Unity, the game engine that powers most VR training simulations. It will allow developers like my firm, the Gronstedt Group, to create training simulators in Unity and deploy them to both Quest and Vision.
As compelling as the Vision Pro sounds, the market leading Meta Quest still provides several benefits for training simulations:
- Affordability: The $500 Quest 3 suddenly seems like an incredible bargain. Apple certainly has widely superior hardware, but with similar features, most companies will probably prefer seven Quest 3s for the price of one Vision Pro.
- Shareability: The Apple headset is designed for a single user, just like the iPhone. Eyeglasses cannot fit inside, requiring a tailor-made prescription lens. In contrast, the Quest fits most glasses comfortably. And there is no word about an Apple enterprise platform with “kiosk mode” to share the headset with multiple users, as provided by Quest for Business. The $3,500 price tag would be chump change if a company could train thousands of people using a few shared headsets at self-serve stations, which is the predominant deployment method for VR training today. That will probably not be an option with Apple’s many customized features and account setup.
- Controllers: Apple didn’t announce support for hand controllers that provide haptic feedback and the ability to grab objects and navigate larger virtual spaces. A vibration in the controller can go a long way to feel like you’re actually spraying your hands with antiseptics in our VR pharma labs. The thumbstick on the controllers allows HVAC giant Daikin’s customers to move around its giant heating units on a rooftop and watch them from every angle. Active hands-on simulations designed to build muscle memory might never be available for Vision Pro unless they support controllers.
The Apple Vision Pro is certainly over-priced and over-engineered. Apple has crammed so much technology into the headset that it requires a separate battery fanny pack, which only lasts a few hours. That’s the point though, Apple prototyped an optimal user experience for its developers. Apple’s vibrant developer community is its biggest competitive advantage and the primary target of this launch product.
The iPhone didn’t take off until Uber, Google Map and Facebook built “killer apps” that made people use the device in entirely new ways. Whereas Quest has 400 apps in its store, Vision Pro will debut with hundreds of thousands of existing Apple apps. This will include Microsoft Office, Slack, Zoom, Google Workspace and all other productivity apps presently in the Apple App Store. Most of those will initially be retrofitted 2D apps, it remains to be seen how well the app makers take advantage of the 3D space. This is a platform, not just a product. While Apple’s famed developer echo system will create content over the next several years, Apple will focus on shrinking the cost, size, and weight of the headset.
Meanwhile, competitors will draw inspiration from Apple’s novel ideas and expand upon them. I can’t wait to try Quest 3 and whatever Samsung will launch later this year. We’re on the cusp of a new era where “spatial computing” is poised to become mainstream, and “spatial learning“ could transition from experimental novelty to large-scale deployment. But only if the enterprise learning and development community steps up to create its own killer learning apps that harness the superpowers of spatial computing.