Apple’s VisionPro promises a superhero vision — but are you ready for it? - Hindustan Times
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Seeing Silicon | Apple’s VisionPro promises a superhero vision — but are you ready for it?

Mar 03, 2024 08:00 AM IST

With their enhanced technological abilities, augmented reality devices are here to stay. And it’s only a matter of time (and money) before you put one on.

A friend in Mountain View brings out his brand-new Apple Vision Pro after dinner. At about $4,000 including Apple’s employee discount, it is a geeky indulgence for someone as frugal as him. I gingerly pick it up, like I would a heritage kundan set, admiring its smooth aluminium body, its cushy contours, and the shiny black goggles that seem to invite me into its fantasy worlds.

Apple Vision Pro (Representative Photo) PREMIUM
Apple Vision Pro (Representative Photo)

My hair becomes a bird’s nest as I inelegantly put the luxurious headset on my head, strapping the headband to secure it. The world goes dark and from it, after we fiddled a bit, emerges the device’s instructions to make me part of the club – by reading my face and hands. The Vision Pro works much like your iPad or Mac would, except you’re wearing it on your face, and the apps you are used to and the keyboard is strewn in the ether in front of you.

I squint to sharpen the icons that float before me in near vision – the side effect of using the device without my prescription glasses. (Vision Pro comes with special prescription inserts for $149 extra for those who don’t wear contacts. My friend doesn’t have extras.) I turn my head. Behind my work screen, I can see others from our dinner party playing a board game in the living room. Though it isn’t my myopic eyes that are viewing them; it is the Vision Pro’s real-time video of what is in front of me projected back to my eyes.

A floating Disney Plus app opens a nature documentary after I clunkily combine eye movement with a hand gesture (a stare and a pinch). The video encircles my vision like an IMAX theatre making me feel I’m in a forest. The immersive colour and the resolution are definitely a leap forward from other display technologies I’ve tried. And I don’t feel the nausea – something that had bothered me about most AR/VR headsets, like Meta’s Quest 3 ($500 and up). I tried them on at a BestBuy outlet in Sunnyvale, but within a minute of running with the protagonist in an immersive video game, I was motion-sick. “You’ll get used to it,” assured the Meta salesperson standing next to me.

I might have to, I thought. According to Statista’s data, the extended reality (XR) market size that includes augmented, virtual and mixed reality, was at $41.22 billion in 2023 and is expected to grow over a $100 billion by 2026 across the world. In three years, the market is supposed to grow more than double its current size. No wonder technology companies are running to create a pair of bulky scuba goggle computers to put on our eyes. Though they soon might be shedding the bulky weight.

At an AR/VR trade exhibition in San Francisco in February, I try out Finland-based Dispelix’s augmented and mixed-reality prototype glasses. They are about as heavy as the glasses I’m used to wearing, and came with see-through display technology. Which means, the person seeing me wouldn’t notice that I have a running computer in my glasses that allows a layer of augmented information onto my vision. Tommi Karjalainen, the product manager who has worked on this optical waveguide technology tells me they want to develop tech that stays invisible. Wasn’t that the problem with the now infamous Google Glass, I wonder? Launched in 2013 after a dramatic ski diving presentation by Google’s founder Sergey Brin, it failed, supposedly because of privacy concerns.

But perhaps that was another time. As Karjalainen talks, behind his head, a Lego movie plays out clunkily in the far distance, giving me a slight hint of nausea. He assures me with a beautiful smile that the nausea will go away as my eyes get used to seeing dual distance. The floor at the VR/MR exhibition has 50 startups and companies like Dispelix, from Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Europe and the US (nothing from India), developing different types of lenses, software and electronics for optical technology for AR/MR manufacturers.

It almost feels like an AR future will come within the next few years – nausea or not. A future in which everyone wears a dorky-looking glass, swipes in the air and interacts with the world with a technology overlay. Meanwhile, within 10 minutes of trying out Vision Pro at my friend’s place, I am tired. The first version of the headset is cool but heavy. It stresses my eyes out and being inside it feels lonely.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a superpower like augmented reality. I’m waiting for my little elf, who puts a layer of computation on my vision, shows me an overlay map of a new city, whispers the name of the person I meet at a conference, and hands out cheat sheets of songs for me to win an Antakshari game, and even adds live subtitles to what a Japanese chef is saying about her bowl of ramen.

And by the long lines of humans that stood outside the Apple store when Vision Pro launched a few weeks ago, I can see we’re going to get there.

Being human though, I sometimes do want this elf to rest. To get lost in a new city, use self-made sign language with a Japanese chef, or lose in a board game being played out on the carpet in my friend’s living room.

Shweta Taneja is an author and journalist based in the Bay Area. Her fortnightly column reflects on how emerging tech and science is reshaping society in the Silicon Valley and beyond. Find her online with @shwetawrites. The views expressed are personal.

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