Apple’s Vision Pro is amazing, but nobody wants one

After much anticipation and hype, in February 2024 Apple released its contribution to the mixed reality headset market. Without a doubt, the Vision Pro is a remarkable technological achievement. Apple believed it was the product that would give the company a dominant position in spatial computing—the blending of the physical and digital worlds. However, the market hasn’t embraced Vision Pro, and recent news from Apple suggests they’re revising their roadmap. What happened to Apple’s dream of mass adoption of spatial computing, and what can we learn from it?

At first the Experience is nothing short of Wow

Spend 30 minutes in an Apple store experiencing their Vision Pro demo and it’s clear that it’s a computing and engineering marvel. Its specifications are off the charts: two OLED screens with 23 million pixels, 12 cameras, five sensors, six microphones and an M2 chip. Eh!

Apple has packed a lot into such a small footprint, and the sensory experience exceeds expectations. For example, in the demo, a user is transported to a rehearsal room with Alicia Keys and her band, and it feels and sounds almost magical. That alone is worth the 30-minute demo.

Using the Vision Pro as a computer allows the user to open multiple virtual screens of their favorite applications. These screens appear suspended in front of the user and each can be easily zoomed in and out. Interaction involves specific hand gestures such as pinching and pulling, and many actions involve eye movement.

Engagement with the device is compelling, there’s a familiar Apple user interface feel, and the performance of every action feels natural and responsive.

Is there a market for spatial computing today?

Apple’s bet was that this rich, immersive, virtual experience would represent the next generation computing platform, and with their reputation for user-friendly design and service, they would quickly establish themselves as a leader. Despite a phenomenal track record of product successes, Apple missed the mark on this high-profile release. What exactly did they do wrong?

Apple’s Vision Pro was not the first in this category. Not far away. The earliest head-mounted displays for computing and virtual reality (VR), also known as VR headsets, date back to the 1960s.

More recently, in 2016, Sony released their PlayStation VR headset and in 2018, Meta hit the market with the Oculus Go. While aimed primarily at the gaming market, both Sony and Meta have had reasonable success, with 5 and 20 million units each sold to date, respectively. Recently, sales have slowed significantly, with Sony even stopping production as current inventory dwindles.

Microsoft’s venture into VR with its much-vaunted HoloLens – achieved limited success in an enterprise context, but eventually shut down its mixed reality efforts in 2023.

Leaders like Sony, Meta and Microsoft, despite all their marketing resources and influence, discovered one truth: the size of the market for VR headsets, while not insignificant, is narrow and niche.

Did Apple and their rooms full of analysts have access to market data that others did not?

It seems that Apple was betting that with an innovative product and a much broader set of uses, they could create a mass space computing market. To Apple’s credit, their reputation for building mass market demand has been impressive when looking at products such as the iPod, iPad and iPhone, which together have shipped billions of units.

However, this year Apple is now projecting to sell only about 450,000 Vision Pros, well short of their first-year target of 800,000. Compare that to the 73 million Apple iPads that were sold in their first year.

Most prominent on day one was the Vision Pro award. Starting at $3,500, that number eclipsed the Meta’s headphones, for example, which retailed for around $500. Of course, the features aren’t a completely fair comparison, but Apple’s pricing wasn’t even in the ballpark.

A small market and a high price weren’t the only headwinds facing Apple.

Innovative technology is not enough for market success

By offering a wide range of compelling uses, Apple was betting that large numbers of people would embrace spatial computing for their everyday work, learning and entertainment needs. For this to happen, a significant change in behavior was required. Testimonials from other vendors simply did not support this, and the same happened for Apple.

Not long after purchasing and getting over the novelty factor, many users started thinking about how they could use the device. This was compounded by Vision Pro’s lack of specific apps and media. Not surprisingly, Apple experienced a high number of returns and more than a few units appeared on sites like eBay.

The typically excited interest in a new Apple product quickly faded as well. Social media mentions and Google searches plummeted within weeks.

Another issue that was also difficult to overcome was the form factor. While wearing a computer with a headset to play a game or engage in exercise for a short period of time may be acceptable, wearing a headset for hours on end to surf the web or watch a the film was not convincing. Many users reported that the headset did not offer a compelling upgrade over their traditional setups.

It also doesn’t help that the Vision Pro is heavy at 1.4 pounds. That’s a lot of weight to strap around your head without discomfort for any length of time. More than a few people also reported health problems, including motion sickness, black eyes, headaches and eye strain from prolonged use. Many of these issues are common complaints with VR headset mode.

What’s next for space computing and Vision Pro?

There’s a lot to love about Apple’s first-generation Vision Pro, and to be fair, it has plenty of enthusiastic users. Anyone using the device for the first time is quickly amazed at how the experience feels like a huge step forward.

But Apple’s sharp sales results, and those of other vendors, clearly suggest that in its current form, a mass market opportunity for spatial computing does not yet exist.

Great technology alone is not enough for market success.

Reports indicate that while Apple doesn’t plan a sequel to this Vision Pro model, they aren’t giving up on spatial computing, and that a lower-cost product with fewer features could appear within a year or two. By then, the market may be ready, and compelling uses are more apparent.

For spatial computing to succeed in the mass market, it must solve problems and create experiences in a way that is affordable and in a form factor that is no more intrusive than wearing a regular pair of glasses.

However, the top prize will go to the company that finally creates an immersive experience that doesn’t require any head gear.

Holodeck, anyone?

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