|Apple Vision Pro hands-on, redux: Immersive Video, Disney+ app, floating keyboard, and a little screaming
|Posted by: Engadget on Jan 16th, 2024 6:00 PM
With pre-orders for the Apple Vision Pro headset opening this week, the company is getting ready to launch one of its most significant products ever. It announced this morning an “entertainment format pioneered by Apple” called Apple Immersive Video, as well as new viewing environments in the Disney+ app featuring scenes from the studio’s beloved franchises like the Avengers and Star Wars.
We already got hands-on once back at WWDC when the headset was first announced, but two of our editors, Dana Wollman and Cherlynn Low, had a chance to go back and revisit the device (and in Dana’s case, experience it anew). Since we’ve already walked you through some of the basic UI elements in our earlier piece, we decided to focus on some of the more recently added features, including Apple Immersive Video, the new Disney+ environments, a built-in “Encounter Dinosaurs” experience, as well as the floating keyboard, which didn’t work for us when we first tried the device in June of last year. Here, too, we wanted to really get at what it actually feels like to use the device, from the frustrating to the joyful to the unintentionally eerie. (Yes, there was a tear, and also some screaming.)
Fit, comfort and strap options
Cherlynn: The best heads-up display in the world will be useless if it can’t be worn for a long time, so comfort is a crucial factor in the Apple Vision Pro’s appeal. This is also a very personal factor with a lot of variability between individual users. I have what has been described as a larger-than-usual head, and a generous amount of hair that is usually flat-ironed. This means that any headgear I put on tends to slip, especially if the band is elastic.
Unlike the version that our colleague Devindra Hardawar saw at WWDC last year, the Vision Pro unit I tried on today came with a strap that you stretch and ends up at the back of your head. It was wide, ridged and soft, and I at first thought it would be very comfortable. But 15 minutes into my experience, I started to feel weighed down by the device, and five more minutes later, I was in pain. To be fair, I should have flagged my discomfort to Apple earlier, and alternative straps were available for me to swap out. But I wanted to avoid wasting time. When I finally told the company’s staff about my issues, they changed the strap to one that had two loops, with one that went over the top of my head.
Dana: The fitting took just long enough — required just enough tweaking — that I worried for a minute that I was doing it wrong, or that I somehow had the world’s one unfittable head. First, I struggled to get the lettering to look sharp. It was like sitting at an optometrist's office, trying out a lens that was just slightly too blurry for me. Tightening the straps helped me get the text as crisp as it needed to be, but that left my nose feeling pinched. The solution was swapping out the seal cushion for the lighter of the two options. (There are two straps included in the box, as well as two cushions.) With those two tweaks — the Dual Loop Band and the light seal cushion — I finally felt at ease.
Cherlynn: Yep, that Dual Loop band felt much better for weight distribution, and it didn’t keep slipping down my hair. It’s worth pointing out that Apple did first perform a scan to determine my strap size, and they chose the Medium for me. I also had to keep turning a dial on the back right to make everything feel more snug, so I had some control over how tightly the device sat. Basically, you’ll have quite a lot of options to adapt the Vision Pro to your head.
Apple Immersive Video and spatial videos
Dana: Sitting up close in the center of Apple Immersive and spatial videos reminded me of Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s A Wonderful Life: I was both an insider and outsider at the same time. In one demo, we saw Alicia Keys performing the most special of performances: just for us, in a living room. In a different series of videos — these meant to demonstrate spatial video — we saw the same family at mealtime, and a mother and daughter outside, playing with bubbles.
As I watched these clips, particularly the family home videos that reminded me of my own toddler, I felt immersed, yes, but also excluded; no one in the videos sees you or interacts with you, obviously. You are a ghost. I imagined myself years from now, peering in from the future on bygone videos of my daughter, and felt verklempt. I did not expect to get teary-eyed during a routine Apple briefing.
Cherlynn: The Immersive Video part of my demo was near the end, by which point I had already been overwhelmed by the entire experience and did not quite know what more to expect. The trailer kicked off with Alicia Keys singing in my face, which I enjoyed. But I was more surprised by the kids playing soccer with some rhinos on the field, and when the animals charged towards me, I physically recoiled. I loved seeing the texture of their skin and the dirt on the surface, and was also impressed when I saw the reflection of an Apple logo on the surface of a lake at the end. I didn’t have the same emotional experience that Dana did, but I can see how it would evoke some strong feelings.
Dana: Apple was very careful to note that the version of the Disney+ app we were using was in beta; a work in progress. But what we saw was still impressive. Think of it like playing a video game: Before you select your race course, say, you get to choose your player. In this case, your “player” is your background. Do you want to sit on a rooftop from a Marvel movie? The desert of Tatooine? Make yourself comfortable in whatever setting tickles your fancy, and then you can decide if actually you want to be watching Ted Lasso in your Star Wars wasteland. It’s not enough to call it immersive. In some of these “outdoor” environments in particular, it’s like attending a Disney-themed drive-in. Credit to Disney: They both understand – and respect – their obsessive fans. They know their audience.
Cherlynn: As a big Marvel fangirl, I really geeked out when the Avengers Tower environment came on. I looked around and saw all kinds of easter eggs, including a takeout container from Shawarma Grill on the table next to me. It feels a little silly to gush about the realism of the images, but I saw no pixels. Instead, I looked at a little handwritten note that Tony Stark had clearly left behind and felt like I was almost able to pick it up. When we switched over to the Tattooine environment, I was placed in the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder, and when I reached out to grab the steering controls, I was able to see my own hands in front of me. I felt slightly disappointed to not actually be able to interact with those elements, but it was definitely a satisfying experience for a fan.
Cherlynn: Devindra mentioned that the floating keyboard wasn’t available at his demo last year, and was curious to hear what that was like. I was actually surprised that it worked, and fairly well in my experience. When I selected the URL bar by looking at it and tapping my thumb and forefinger, the virtual keyboard appeared. I could either use my eyes to look at the keys I wanted, then tap my fingers together to push them. Or, and this is where I was most impressed, I could lean forward and press the buttons with my hands.
It’s not as easy as typing on an actual keyboard would be, but I was quite tickled by the fact that it worked. Kudos to Apple’s eye- and hand-tracking systems, because they were able to detect what I was looking at or aiming for most of the time. My main issue with the keyboard was that it felt a little too far away and I needed to stretch if I wanted to press the buttons myself. But using my eye gaze and tapping wasn’t too difficult for a short phrase, and if I wanted to input something longer I could use voice typing (or pair a Bluetooth keyboard if necessary).
Dana: This was one of the more frustrating aspects of the demo for me. Although there were several typing options – hunting and pecking with your fingers, using eye control to select keys, or just using Siri – none of them felt adequate for anything resembling extended use. It took several tries for me to even spell Engadget correctly in the Safari demo. This was surprising to me, as so many other aspects of the broader Apple experience – the pinch gesture, the original touch keyboard on the original iPhone – that “just work,” as Apple loves to say about itself. The floating keyboard here clearly needs improvement. In the meantime, it’s harder to imagine using the Vision Pro for actual work. The Vision Pro feels much further along as a personal home theater.
Cherlynn: As someone who’s covered the meditation offerings by companies like Apple and Fitbit a fair amount, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Vision Pro. Luckily, this experience took place in the earlier part of the demo, so I wasn’t feeling any head strain yet and was able to relax. I leaned back on the couch and watched as a cloud, similar to the Meditation icon in the Apple Watch, burst into dozens of little “leaves” and floated around me in darkness. As the 1-minute session started, soft, comforting music played in the background as a voice guided me through what to do. The leaves pulsed and I felt enveloped by relaxing visuals and calming sounds and altogether it felt quite soothing. It’s funny how oddly appropriate a headset is for something like meditating, where you can literally block out distractions in the world and simply focus on your breathing. This was a fitting use of the Vision Pro that I certainly did not anticipate.
Dana: I wanted more of this. A dark environment, with floating 3D objects and a prompt to think about what I am grateful for today. The demo only lasted one minute, but I could have gone longer.
Cherlynn: Fun fact about me: Dinosaurs don’t scare me, but butterflies do. Yep. Once you’ve stopped laughing, you can imagine the trauma I had to undergo at this demo. I’d heard from my industry friends and Devindra all about how they watched a butterfly land on their fingers in their demos at WWDC, before dinosaurs came bursting out of a screen to roar at them. Everyone described this as a realistic and impressive technological demo, since the Vision Pro was able to accurately pinpoint for everyone where their fingers were and have the butterflies land exactly on their fingertips.
I did not think I’d have to watch a butterfly land on my body today, and just generally do not want that in life. But for this demo, I kept my eyes open to see just how well Apple would do, and, because I had a minor calibration issue at the start of this demo, I had to do this twice. The first time this happened, I… screamed a bit. I could see the butterfly’s wings and legs. That’s really what creeped me out the most — seeing the insect’s legs make “contact” with my finger. There was no tactile feedback, but I could almost feel the whispery sensation of the butterfly’s hairy ass legs on my finger. Ugh.
Then the awful butterfly flew away and a cute baby dinosaur came out, followed by two ferocious dinosaurs that I then stood up to “pet”. It was much more fun after, and actually quite an impressive showcase of the Vision Pro’s ability to blend the real world with immersive experiences, as I was able to easily see and walk around a table in front of me to approach the dinosaur.
Dana: Unlike Cher, I did not scream, though I did make a fool of myself. I held out my hand, to beckon one of the dinosaurs, and it did in fact walk right up to me and make a loud sound in my face. I “pet” it before it retreated. Another dinosaur appeared. I once again held out my hand, but that second dino ignored me. As the demo ended, I waved and heard myself say “bye bye.” (Did I mention I live with a toddler?) I then remembered there were other adults in the room, observing me use the headset, and felt sheepish. Which describes much of the Vision Pro experience, to be honest. You could maybe even say the same of any virtual reality headset worth their salt. It is immersive to the point that you will probably, at some point, throw decorum to the wind.
Final (ish) thoughts
Cherlynn: I had been looking forward to trying on the Vision Pro for myself and was mostly not disappointed. The eye- and hand-tracking systems are impressively accurate, and I quickly learned how to navigate the interface, so much so that I was speeding ahead of the instructions given to me. I’m not convinced that I’ll want to spend hours upon hours wearing a headset, even if the experience was mind-blowing. The device’s $3,500 price is also way out of my budget.
But of all the VR, AR and MR headsets I’ve tried on in my career, the Apple Vision Pro is far and away the best, and easily the most thought-out. Apple also took the time to show us what you would look like to other people when using the device, with a feature called EyeSight that would put a visual feed of your eyes on the outside of the visor. Depending on what you’re doing in visionOS, the display would show some animations indicating whether you’re fully immersed in an environment or if you can see the people around you.
Dana: The Vision Pro was mostly easier to use than I expected, and while it has potential as an all-purpose device that you could use for web browsing, email, even some industrial apps, its killer application, for now, is clearly watching movies (home videos or otherwise). I can’t pretend that Apple is the first to create a headset offering an immersive experience; that would be an insult to every virtual reality headset we’ve tested previously (sorry, Apple, I’m going to use the term VR). But if you ask me what it felt like to use the headset, particularly photo and video apps, my answer is that I felt joy. It is fun to use. And it is up to you if this much fun should cost $3,500.This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/apple-vision-pro-hands-on-redux-immersive-video-disney-app-floating-keyboard-and-a-little-screaming-180006222.html?src=rss
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