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 one device, and we call it the iPhone.”
At $500, my first iPhone was relatively expensive, but I was eager to ditch my humble Motorola phone and splurge. There were drawbacks – including slow cellular internet speeds. But the iPhone delivered on its promises.
Over the past week, I've had a very different experience with a new first-generation product from Apple: the Vision Pro, a virtual reality headset that looks like a pair of ski goggles. The $3,500 wearable computer, released Friday, uses cameras so you can see the outside world while running apps and videos.
Apple calls it a “spatial computer” that blends the physical and digital worlds so people can work, watch movies and play games.
Apple declined to provide an early review unit to The New York Times, so I bought the Vision Pro on Friday. (It costs more than $3,500 with extras that many people will need, including a $200 carrying case, $180 AirPods, and $100 prescription lenses for people who wear glasses.) Not convinced people will get much value from it.
The device feels less polished than previous first-generation Apple products I've used. Work performance isn't any better than on a PC, and the games I've tried so far aren't as fun, making it hard to recommend. One important feature — the ability to make video calls using a humanoid digital avatar that resembles the wearer — terrifies kids during a family FaceTime call.
The headset is great at delivering on one of its promises: video playback, including high-definition movies and your own 3D recordings that let you immerse yourself in memories of the past, which is weird and wonderful.
In the past decade, companies like Mita, HTC, and Sony struggled mightily to sell headphones to mainstream consumers because their products were cumbersome to wear, had limited applications, and just didn't look great.
The Vision Pro has a superior user interface, better image quality, more apps, and higher computing power than other headphones. But they're a little heavier than Meta's cheaper Quest headphones, and they're plugged into an external battery that lasts just two hours.
Apple's ski goggle aesthetic looks better than the bulky plastic headphone visors of the past. But the videos posted by early adopters Wandering Out with Headphones — the guys I call Vision Bros — confirm that people still look ridiculous wearing tech glasses, even when they're designed by Apple.
The Vision Pro is miles ahead of other headsets I've tested at making an immersive 3D interface easy for users to control with their eyes and hands. I let four of my colleagues wear the headset in the office and watched them all learn how to use it 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 application is equivalent to hovering over it with the mouse cursor; To tap it, press your thumb and index finger together, making a quick tap. The pinch gesture can also be used to navigate and expand windows.
The Vision Pro includes a knob called the Digital Crown. Turning it counterclockwise allows you to see the real world in the background while keeping digital windows to your apps in the foreground. Rotating it clockwise hides the real world with an opaque background.
I preferred to see physical reality most of the time, but I still felt isolated. The headset cuts off part of your surroundings, creating a periscope-like effect. I admit that it was sometimes difficult to remember to walk my dogs because I didn't see them or hear them whine, and on another session, I tripped over a chair. An Apple spokeswoman pointed to the Vision Pro's safety guidelines, which advise users to remove obstacles.
When using a headset for work, you can surround yourself with multiple floating apps — your spreadsheet could be in the middle, the Notes app to your right, and the browser to your left, for example. It is the 3D version of playing windows on a computer screen. Although this sounds neat, squeezing the floating screens doesn't make work more efficient because you need to keep turning your head to see them.
I could endure using the Notes app, browser, and Microsoft Word app for no more than 15 minutes before I felt nauseous.
The least fun part of the Vision Pro is typing using the floating keyboard, which requires pressing one key at a time. I planned to write this review with the headset on before I realized I wouldn't be able to make the deadline.
There's an option to connect a physical keyboard, but at this 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 the screen in the headset as a virtual window that can be expanded to look like a large screen. In my tests, there was consistent lag, with each key press taking a split second to register by default, and the mouse cursor moving slowly. I also instinctively wanted to control the Mac with pinches, even though it wasn't set up to work that way, which was frustrating.
Next, I tried out the headset in the kitchen, loading a pizza recipe into my web browser while I measured ingredients. While I was moving while looking through the camera, I felt nauseous again and had to remove the headset. The Vision Pro is more comfortable to use while sitting. Apple advises people to take breaks to reduce motion sickness.
Video calls are now an essential part of office life, and this is where the Vision Pro is particularly inferior to a camera laptop. The headset uses its cameras to take photos of your face that are combined into a 3D avatar called “Persona,” which Apple describes as an “experimental” feature because it is incomplete.
The characters are so awkward that people would feel embarrassed to use them on a business call. The Vision Pro produced an unflattering image of me with no cheekbones and blurred ears. On a FaceTime call with my in-laws, they said this blur evoked an '80s studio atmosphere.
One of my 3-year-old nieces turned and walked away at the sight of virtual Uncle Brian. The other, 7 years old, hid behind her father and whispered in his ear: “It looks fake.”
Are we having fun?
Video is where the Vision Pro shines. When streaming movies through apps like Disney+ and Max, you can tap and drag the corner of a video clip to expand it onto a huge HD TV; Some films, such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Avatar 2,” can be watched in 3D. The image appears brighter and clearer than the quality found in Meta's Quest products. The sound quality on Apple's headphones is excellent, but the speakers are loud, so you'll need AirPods if you want to use them in public.
The headset's two-hour battery life isn't long enough to last through most feature-length movies, but in my experience, that turned out to be moot as I wasn't able to watch movies for more than 20-30 minutes before needing a break. The neck and eyes of the speaker are heavy.
(Warning: Netflix and YouTube apps are not available on the Vision Pro, but their websites work well for streaming content.)
I prefer watching movies on my flat-screen TV because they can be shared, but there are scenarios where headphones are useful as a personal TV, like in a small apartment or on a plane, or on the couch when someone else is watching a TV show you want to stop.
Videos captured with the iPhone 15 Pro or Vision Pro cameras can be viewed in 3D on the headset, a feature called spatial videos. While watching a video of my dogs having snacks at home, I could reach out to them and pretend to pet them. The videos looked grainy but were exhilarating.
There aren't many games made for headsets yet. I tried out some of the 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 faded. It's hard to recommend the Vision Pro for VR gaming when the Meta's Quest 2 and $500 Quest 3 headsets have a deeper library of games.
The Vision Pro is the start of something, I'm not sure what exactly.
But the goal of a product review is to evaluate the current situation. In its current state, the Vision Pro is an impressive but incomplete first-generation product that suffers from significant problems and trade-offs. Other than being a luxury personal TV, it lacks purpose.
What sticks out to me most about the Vision Pro is how difficult it is for an expensive PC to share the headset with others. There is a guest mode, but there is no ability to create profiles for different family members to upload their own apps and videos.
So it's a computer for people to use alone, and it comes at a time when we're seeking to reconnect after years of masked isolation. This may be the Vision Pro's biggest blind spot.