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Immersive gaming and fitness apps are the key to Vision Pro’s consumer appeal

The foundational vocabulary of any new medium is inherited from that of its predecessor. Take, for instance, the early days of television, when so many shows were effectively radio programs caught on film. The new medium’s success is dependent on the development of its own vocabulary, distinguishing itself from earlier paradigms.

In the case of Vision Pro, the connection to a predecessor couldn’t be more apparent. A major piece of Apple’s content strategy is the ability to run iPadOS apps on the headset. When searching the visionOS App Store, users choose between content developed specifically for the platform and that created for the tablet. It’s similar to the approach the company has taken to building out the Mac App Store, which draws from both iOS and iPadOS apps.

While 600 is a good number of “optimized” apps for the launch of a first-gen product, the availability of iPadOS content really bolsters the essentials and gives developers some extra time to build something custom while bigger names like YouTube waffle on their objectives. As far as what constitutes “optimized,” we’re talking about a wide spectrum. That could mean something as simple as a change to the UX to reflect the Vision Pro’s hand tracking. It could also mean something far more immersive.

I understand if you didn’t make it all the way through last week’s 6,000-word review, so here’s a bit of the TL;DR: the Vision Pro will live or die on the backs of developers. As I noted previously, the first iPhone was undoubtedly a revolutionary piece of hardware, but it was the iPhone 3G’s App Store that really blew the industry wide open. At this point we all fundamentally understand that a hardware platform is only as good as its content, and Apple only truly demonstrated how capable its smartphone was by opening it up to developers.

Truly immersive experiences are very much in the minority in the Vision Pro’s current state. That’s not a surprise, really. While development has -- to a certain extent -- been open for months now, I’m sure many parties have been waiting for launch to gauge the true interest of both the public and their developers.

This isn’t to say that immersion isn’t present in the current offering. For one thing, it’s big into Environments -- a core feature of visionOS that serves as a kind of immersive desktop wallpaper, putting you on the moon, in a desert or at the edge a volcano. Experience Dinosaurs, meanwhile, does a fine job leveraging the knowledge of the Prehistoric Planet team to create one of Vision Pro’s most compelling demos. It’s content like this that demonstrates potential that can be exploited by future developers.

One of the device’s initial creativity bottlenecks, however, is where Apple chose to focus its initial push. In my review, I hammered the idea of “infinite desktop,” a play on the phrase “infinite canvas” that gets to the heart of the “spatial computing” experience Tim Cook has pushed since day one. At its core, Apple sees the device as the next step in a journey that began with the Mac decades ago. For now, it’s designed to play nicely with desktops and laptops, but it's easy to imagine a future where (should things play out the way the company hopes) Apple’s primary PC is one you strap to your face.

This push was a surprise to many at last year’s WWDC. I suspect it also left plenty of fans cold. A 360 degree desktop is compelling to sum, but there’s a sense it which it’s almost a commoditization of the form factor that’s been sold to us as the future of entertainment for decades. A big part of this push is obvious: the first-gen product is $3,500. Enterprises have significantly deeper pockets than consumers. How do you sell to them?

Training apps are a big piece. If a company believes it can save money on employee training down the road, it will happily shell out the upfront cost. Rendering is a piece as well -- look to apps like JigSpace as an example of real-time 3D modeling. Imagine, for instance, building a 3D render of a car in 3D design software, exporting it and then being able to walk around it. The third key point is productivity. That’s where spatial computing comes in. This means products like Microsoft Word and applications like mind mapping, which are traditionally constrained by PC displays.

Entertainment is here too, but it largely feels secondary to visionOS in its current form. Part of the answer can be found in the product’s name. Given Apple’s current product line structuring, “Vision Pro” implies the future existence of an “Apple Vision” -- i.e. a headset for consumers priced well below $3,500. If you know anything about hardware, you know how much first-gen products absorb R&D costs, as well as smaller-scale manufacturing. The bleeding-edge components such as 4K eye displays way heavily on production costs until scale increases.

So, you position the product as premium and you sell it to enterprises. Games and movies are present because they can’t not be. The idea of a “work machine” doesn’t exist the way it did decades ago. The iPhone played a huge role in blurring that line, for better or worse, making the productivity machine its own distraction device. If you bring your work laptop on a business trip, odds are pretty good you’ll fire up Netflix at some point.

Perhaps the more accessible version of the product will find Apple shining more of a spotlight on immersive entertainment. As it stands, many of the experiences are iPadOS apps that are played on a virtual large screen, rather than something that takes advantage of immersion and hand tracking in a way that couldn’t be replicated in the medium that preceded it. For now, it seems, there’s a reason Apple doesn’t want people calling the Vision Pro “VR.”

This morning, I played a few rounds of Synth Riders. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also available on Meta Quest -- that’s an easy enough port. In fact, many of the first immersive entertainment experiences will likely take this route. If you’re already developing for VR, why not tap into this burgeoning market? Synth Riders is a rhythm game not fundamentally dissimilar from Rock Band, wherein your hands (or controllers in the case of the Meta Quest) control two spheres that rack up points as you correctly move them to the beat of a synthwave track.

I found it mesmerizing. It’s also the closest I’ve come to using a fitness app on the device. This is due to limitations with headset weight, price and that darn battery pack. The Vision Pro isn’t designed for you to jump around and get super sweaty in. This does, however, feel like a blind spot for a company so focused on the space through the Apple Watch and Fitness+ app. Maybe as Apple brings the weight down and finds a more manageable battery solution? Again, many of our Vision Pro conversations are very much focused on the first-gen hump.

Ultimately, however, broader consumer appeal will hinge on two key things: 1) Bringing down the cost and 2) Content. Both will make or break future devices’ mainstream appeal, and whether Apple currently recognizes it or not, entertainment and fitness will need to play a key role in that journey.