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Apple Vision Pro Hands-On: This Is the Headset I’d Use to Watch 3D ‘Avatar’

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I was in a movie theater last December watching Avatar: The Way of Water in 3D, and I said to myself: “Wow, this is an immersive film I’d love to watch in next-gen VR.” That’s exactly what I just experienced in Apple’s Vision Pro headset, and yeah, it’s amazing.

I just tried out Vision Pro in a series of carefully picked demos during WWDC at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters. I’ve been using cutting-edge VR devices for years, and I found all sorts of augmented reality memories bubbling up in my brain. Apple’s compact — but still not small — headset reminds me of an Apple-designed Meta Quest Pro. The fit of the back strap was comfy yet stretchy, with a dial to adjust the rear fit and a top strap for stability. 

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Watch this: First Impressions of Apple’s Vision Pro Mixed Reality Headset

I couldn’t wear my glasses during the demo. Apple’s headset does not support glasses, instead relying on Zeiss custom inserts to correct wearers’ vision. Apple did manage to easily find lenses that fit my vision well enough so that everything seemed crystal-clear, which is not an easy task. Also, we adjusted the fit and tuned spatial audio for my head, a process that will be finessed when the headset releases in 2024.

From there, I did my demos seated, mostly, and found myself surprised from the start. The passthrough video camera quality of this headset is good — really, really good. Not as good as my own vision, but good enough that I could see the room well, see people in it with me, see my watch notifications easily on my wrist. The only headset that’s done this previously is the Varjo XR-3, and Apple’s display and cameras may rival that one.

Apple’s floating grid of apps appears when I press the top digital crown, which autocenters the home screen to wherever I am looking. I set up eye tracking, which worked like many other VR headsets I’ve used: I looked at glowing dots as musical notes played, and a successful chime when it all worked.

An app menu in Apple's VisionOS.

A list of apps as they would appear inside of the Apple Vision Pro headset.

Apple

From there, the interface was surprisingly fluid. Looking at icons or interface options slightly enlarges them, or changes how bold they appear. Tapping with my fingers while looking at something opens an app. 

I’ve used tons of hand-tracking technology on headsets like the Hololens 2 and Meta Quest 2 and Pro, and usually there’s a lot of hand motion required. Here, I could be really lazy. I pinched to open icons even while my hand was resting in my lap, and it worked. 

Scrolling involves pinching and pulling with my fingers; again, pretty easy to do. I resized windows by moving my hand to throw a window across the room or pin it closer to me. I opened multiple apps at once, including Safari, Messages and Photos. It was easy enough to scroll around, although sometimes my eye tracking needed a bit of extra concentration to pull off.

I don’t know how the Vision Pro will work with keyboards and trackpads, since I didn’t get to demo the headset that way. But it works with Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad, and Macs, but not with iPhone and iPad or Watch touchscreens — not now, at least.

Dialing in reality

I scrolled through some photos in Apple’s preset photo album, plus a few 3D photos and video clips shot with the Vision Pro’s 3D camera. All the images looked really crisp, and a panoramic photo that spread around me looked almost like it was a window on a landscape that extended just beyond the room I was in. 

Apple has volumetric 3D landscapes on the Vision Pro that are immersive backgrounds like 3D wallpaper, but looking at one really shows off how nice that Micro OLED display looks. A lake looked like it was rolling up to a rocky shore that ended right where the real coffee table was in front of me. 

man using keyboard to work using apple vision pro headset

Apple/Screenshot by James Martin/CNET

Raising my hands to my face, I saw how the headset separates my hands from VR, a trick that’s already in ARKit. It’s a little rough around the edges but good enough. Similarly, there’s a wild new trick where anyone else in the room can ghost into view if you look at them, a fuzzy halo with their real passthrough video image slowly materializing. It’s meant to help create meaningful contact with people while wearing the headset. I wondered how you could turn that off or tune it to be less present, but it’s a very new idea in mixed reality.

Apple’s digital crown, a small dial borrowed from the Apple Watch, handles reality blend. I could turn the dial to slowly extend the 3D panorama until it surrounded me everywhere, or dial it back so it just emerged a little bit like a 3D window. 

Cinematic fidelity that wowed me

The cinema demo was what really shocked me, though. I played a 3D clip of Avatar: The Way of Water in-headset, on a screen in various viewing modes including a cinema. Apple’s mixed reality passthrough can also dim the rest of the world down a bit, in a way similar to how the Magic Leap 2 does with its AR. But the scenes of Way of Water sent little chills through me. It was vivid. This felt like a movie experience. I don’t feel that way in other VR headsets.

Jake Sully flies over Pandora's waters on a winged creature's back in Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of Water looked great in Vision Pro.

20th Century Studios

Apple also demonstrated its Immersive Video format that’s coming as an extension to Apple TV Plus. It’s a 180-degree video format, similar to what I’ve seen before in concept, but with really strong resolution and video quality. A splash demo reel of Alicia Keys singing, Apple Sports events, documentary footage, and more reeled off in front of me, a teaser of what’s to come. One-eighty-degree video never appears quite as crisp to me as big-screen film content, but the sports clips I saw made me wonder how good virtual Jets games could be in the future. Things have come a long way.

Would I pay $3,499 for a head-worn cinema? No, but it’s clearly one of this device’s greatest unique strengths. The resolution and brightness of the display was surprising.

Convincing avatars (I mean, personas)

Apple’s Personas are 3D-scanned avatars generated by using the Vision Pro to scan your face, making a version of yourself that shows up in FaceTime chats if you want, or also on the outside of the Vision Pro’s curved OLED display to show whether you’re “present” or in an app. I didn’t see how that outer display worked, but I had a FaceTime with someone in their Persona form, and it was good. Again, it looked surprisingly good.

I’ve seen Meta’s ultra-realistic Codec Avatars, which aim for realistic representations of people in VR. Those are stunning, and I’ve also seen Meta’s phone-scanned step-down version in an early form last year, where a talking head spoke to me in VR. Apple’s Persona looked better than Meta’s phone-scanned avatar, although a bit fuzzy around the edges, like a dream. The woman whose Persona was scanned appeared in her own window, not in a full-screen form. 

And I wondered how expressive the emotions are with the Vision Pro’s scanning cameras. The Pro has an ability to scan jaw movement similar to the Quest Pro, and the Persona I chatted with was friendly and smiling. How would it look for someone I know, like my mom? Here, it was good enough that I forgot it was a scan.

We demoed a bit of Apple’s Freeform app, where a collaboration window opened up while my Persona friend chatted in another window. 3D objects popped up in the Freeform app, a full home scan. It looked realistic enough.

Dinosaurs in my world

The final demo was an app experience called Encounter Dinosaurs, which reminded me of early VR app demos I had years ago: An experience emphasizing just the immersive ‘wow’ factor of dinosaurs appearing in a 3D window that seemed to open up in the back wall of my demo room. Creatures that looked like carnotauruses slowly walked through the window and into my space. 

All my demos were seated except for this one, where I stood up and walked around a bit. This sounds like it wouldn’t be an impressive demo, but again, the quality of the visuals and how they looked in relation to the room’s passthrough video capture was what made it feel so great. As the dinosaur snapped at my hand, it felt pretty real. And so did a butterfly that danced through the room and tried to land on my extended finger.

I smiled. But even more so, I was impressed when I took off the headset. My own everyday vision wasn’t that much sharper than what Apple’s passthrough cameras provided. The gap between the two was closer than I would have expected, and it’s what makes Apple’s take on mixed reality in VR work so well.

Then there’s the battery pack. There’s a corded battery that’s needed to power the headset, instead of a built-in battery like most others have. That meant I had to make sure to grab the battery pack as I started to move around, which is probably a reason why so many of Apple’s demos were seated.

What about fitness and everything else?

Apple didn’t emphasize fitness much at all, a surprise to me. VR is already a great platform for fitness, although no one’s finessed headset design for fitness comfort. Maybe having that battery pack right now will limit movement in active games and experiences. Maybe Apple will announce more plans here later. The only taste I got of health and wellness was a one-minute micro meditation, which was similar to the one on the Apple Watch. It was pretty, and again a great showcase of the display quality, but I want more.

2024 is still a while away, and Apple’s headset is priced way out of range for most people. And, I have no idea how much this current headset will feel functional doing everyday work. But Apple did show off a display, and an interface, that are far better than I was ready for. If Apple can build on that, and Vision Pro finds ways of expanding its mixed reality capabilities, then who knows what else is possible?

This was just my fast-take reaction to a quick set of demos on one day in Cupertino. There are a lot more questions to come.



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