Can Apple Rescue the Vision Pro?

Can Apple Rescue the Vision Pro?

When I first got my hands on an Apple Vision Pro early this year, it felt like magic.

I loved the $3,500 “spatial computing” headset, even though I couldn’t really figure out what it was for. For weeks, I took it everywhere, enduring judgmental glares (or were they jealous stares?) from colleagues at the office, strangers at coffee shops and fellow passengers on airplanes. I even used the Vision Pro in the back seat of a self-driving Waymo car, which I believe qualifies me for some kind of “Mr. San Francisco” award.

But novelty fades, and today I barely use the Vision Pro at all. Every few weeks, I strap it to my head to do some focused writing, or watch a movie in bed while my wife sleeps. Otherwise, it sits on a shelf collecting dust.

Apple hasn’t released sales figures, but analysts’ estimates suggest that the device has been a flop, selling fewer units than expected. Social media isn’t buzzing with videos of enthusiastic “Vision Bros” wearing their headsets in public, as it was in the days after the device’s release. Some early adopters returned their Vision Pros for refunds, and lightly used headsets are selling for as little as $2,500 on resale websites.

When I took a casual poll of other Vision Pro owners I know — mostly journalists and tech workers — I learned that few of them were using theirs, either.

“Haven’t touched mine in a month,” one friend texted. “It’s a shame, I was so bullish.”

At its annual developer conference on Monday, Apple announced a few new features for the Vision Pro, including a new version of its VisionOS operating system, new gesture controls and a way of turning old photos into 3-D “spatial photos” that can be viewed on the device. Apple also said it would soon begin selling the Vision Pro in countries including China, Japan and Britain.

But these were modest tweaks, not the sweeping overhaul that many Vision Pro fans were hoping for. And the Vision Pro got upstaged by Apple’s newer, shinier project — generative A.I., which the company is calling “Apple Intelligence” and is pushing into many of its products and services, including a souped-up version of Siri that will be available on iPhones this year.

It’s enough to make me wonder: Is Apple giving up on the device that, just months ago, its executives were heralding as the future of computing?

You probably don’t own a Vision Pro, so I won’t bore you with a full list of my gripes about the product, or the reasons I suspect that Apple is losing interest in it. But here are a few of its most glaring shortcomings:

The first, and most obvious, is the cost. Apple may consider $3,500 a fair price for a first-generation device. (It may even be a fair price, considering all the pricey, cutting-edge components that are packed in.) But $3,500 is simply more than the vast majority of consumers will consider spending on an experimental device that doesn’t replace their smartphone or laptop, and that doesn’t fill an obvious need in their life.

I don’t mind the headset itself, although, as many reviewers have pointed out, it’s too heavy to be worn comfortably for long stretches. (My longest Vision Pro session was three hours, and I felt slightly hung over afterward.) But there are plenty of other annoying hardware issues. Carrying around an external battery pack is a bummer, it doesn’t work well in dark or dimly lit rooms, and there’s no good way to input text — so if you want to use the Vision Pro for any kind of text-based work, you have to use a Bluetooth keyboard.

The Vision Pro also still lacks some basic features. You can’t make or receive phone calls with it, the way iPhone users can with the Mac and the iPad. The Vision Pro is compatible only with Apple’s Magic Trackpad, not with Bluetooth mice. And the guest mode — the way you show the Vision Pro to your friends, when they ask to try it for themselves — is a mess.

But the biggest disappointment with the Vision Pro is how few good apps there are. Several months after its debut, there’s still no native YouTube or Netflix app. There’s no Spotify, no Instagram, no DoorDash. (You can still use some of these services in a web browser, or use unofficial third-party apps, but it’s a worse experience.)

Some of these apps are missing because of corporate infighting. (Google and Meta, for example, have their own virtual reality ambitions and presumably don’t want to give Apple’s product a boost by making apps for it.) But others amount to a lack of confidence. Developers don’t want to make apps for platforms that nobody uses, and their reluctance so far — only about 2,000 apps have been developed for the Vision Pro, Apple said on Monday — says something about the device’s tepid reception.

Apple has also been slow to update its own offerings for the Vision Pro, like a series of “immersive videos,” filmed on special 3-D cameras and released through Apple TV. These videos — which included a prehistoric nature film and a “rehearsal room” video of Alicia Keys and her band as they perform a song — were designed to show off the Vision Pro’s high-definition graphics and its “spatial audio” feature, and they are among the best things you can do with a Vision Pro.

But Apple hasn’t released new immersive videos at a regular clip. And once you run out, what you end up watching on the Vision Pro is mostly the same two-dimensional stuff you’d watch on a TV or an iPad. It’s fun to throw on the Vision Pro occasionally to watch “Dune: Part Two” on a screen the size of a basketball court, but most of the time, it’s not worth the trouble.

I still think the Vision Pro is a remarkable piece of technology. Every friend who has tried mine on has oohed and aahed, and said how futuristic it felt. (Although tellingly, none have gone out and bought their own.) And if Apple is content to have the Vision Pro remain a niche entertainment device, that’s its right.

But if Apple wants the Vision Pro to appeal to the masses, it needs to make some changes. It should lower the price. (Yes, even if it means selling headsets at a loss.) It should fix the bugs, polish the rough spots and release more immersive content. Most urgently, it should find and fund potential killer apps — new games, productivity tools and entertainment experiences that take advantage of the Vision Pro’s features, and that could be reason enough for a person to buy one.

In fairness, the Vision Pro is still new, and other Apple products have taken a generation or two to find their footing. (The Apple Watch famously fizzled when it was launched as a high-end fashion accessory, until Apple discovered that fitness tracking was the killer feature.) The company has said repeatedly that it considers the Vision Pro an early experiment — “tomorrow’s technology today,” as Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, put it — not a fully formed product.

But I worry that the Vision Pro has slipped into a dangerous purgatory. It’s not Apple’s flashiest new project — that’s all the A.I. stuff, which Wall Street is clamoring for and which many users are excited about. And it’s not one of Apple’s big, established cash cows, like the iPhone or the iPad, that people will buy even if each version is only slightly better than the last.

To live up to its potential, the Vision Pro needs a little more love and, well, a little more vision. Apple needs better answers to basic questions like: What is this for? How will it improve my life, or make me more productive than other things I could buy for $3,500? What can I do on it that I can’t do on my laptop, or a big TV?

Otherwise, the Vision Pro may be destined for obsolescence. And I and my fellow Vision Bros may emerge as the Google Glassholes of 2024 — a brave but ultimately foolish tribe of nerds who took a gamble on a futuristic new technology and lost.

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