Will Apple’s Vision Pro launch be a Groundhog Day for immersive computing?

Spatial computing has often been promised as the 'next big thing'

Apple’s Vision Pro headset is set to finally launch in the U.S. on February 2, at a retail price of $3,499. At that price, there’s no doubt it’ll have limited appeal, which seems just fine with Apple given reports about their initial sales expectations. Apple originally announced Vision Pro last June at its annual developer event, and it’s been teasing out hands-on time to select media, influencers and developers in an extended hype and ecosystem preparation event ever since.

The big question remains: Will Apple Vision Pro meaningfully move the needle on immersive computing — or will it be yet another splashy launch for a VR/AR/MR product that fails to change the status quo?

Based on the handful of firsthand accounts available, one thing seems clear about Apple Vision Pro: No one’s doubting its quality or capabilities. Many were impressed by the experience of playing back volumetric video they themselves had captured with their iPhones thanks to a recent software update, and people seemed to universally enjoy watching blockbuster movies in 3D on the headset during their demo. Reactions to other aspects of the experience were more mixed, but again generally very positive.

Curiously, much of what Apple pitched with the Vision Pro launch focused on things you already do all the time on your other devices, including your iPhone, Mac and iPad. The strategy makes a lot of sense given how prior mixed reality devices have missed the mark with overblown claims about revolutionary new computing paradigms, only to end up as niche successes at best — or expensive closet adornments at worst.

The other major player who’s had any success so far in this market is Meta, which introduced the third generation of its Quest headset last year. Meta’s playing in a very different pond when compared to Apple based on price point alone, since the Quest 3 retails for $499 — seven times less than Apple’s debut hardware. Meta started with a more expensive, higher-end option way back in the Oculus origin days, and then went for a mass-market approach, tackling price first and adding back in features as component costs went down to try to find a happy medium where budget accommodations met feature set and quality to drive mass market appeal.

Based on VR client usage tracking numbers, the Meta Quest 3 appears to be doing decently well and may have picked up steam during the most recent holiday quarter, but it’s also been reported that demand for the category is down generally and Meta’s still funneling way more money into the category than it’s recouping from potentially dwindling demand. And that’s with an extremely solid product on the market: The Quest 3 is easily the best VR hardware I’ve used so far in terms of balancing great features and performance with a decent price tag and a fairly impressive software library.

It’s unclear what kind of software library Apple Vision Pro will have at launch; the company has been hosting developer preview events and working with them to prepare apps for consumer availability, so it seems likely they’ll have some standout offerings when it’s time for the first Vision Pro customers to boot up their devices and strap them to their faces.

Apple’s approach to this inaugural launch of its XR ambitions is unique, and it has the added advantage of being a company with a long history of coming relatively late to a category and then owning it, with the iPhone, the iPad and the Apple Watch all being stellar examples.

But it’s facing something here it hasn’t necessarily in the past, which is a device category that has actually enjoyed lots of hype and heraldry as the “next big thing” in computing — for around a decade now. Portable media players and smartphones in particular didn’t enjoy this kind of paradigm-shift shot-calling, only to fall mostly flat the way VR and mixed reality has to date.

Mark Zuckerberg has experienced firsthand how easy it is to be stuck in a seeming time-loop unveiling the next generation of spatial computing, only to find himself onstage the very next year announcing basically the same thing in a slightly different way — and yet not having that future come to pass. Apple seems poised to potentially fall into the same trap, with Vision Pro a splashy instantiation of a mixed reality future we’ve all seen promised before but have no real interest in actually collectively buying into.