Apple’s Beautiful, Lonely Vision

Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook stands next to the new Apple Vision Pro headset.
Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook stands next to the new Apple Vision Pro headset. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
June 11, 2023

There is a raw, holy shit-ness to the amount of technology Apple has packed into its new Vision Pro “spatial computing” device—its strangest, most ambitious product launch in years—which resembles a pair of very elegant, immaculately designed ski goggles. Though it shares a lot of familiar elements with existing virtual and augmented reality headsets, it also has a lot more, and feels like a quantum leap out of nowhere. 

There are reportedly 5,000 patents that went into making this thing. When you wear it, it scans your room; it scans your face; it scans your eyes; and then it allows you to do all the things you can do on other Apple devices—play movies and games, browse the web and send messages—but with the display appearing to float magically in the air around you. Each eye is treated to greater than 4K resolution, with pixel density multiple times higher than the latest iPhone. To get extra nerdy for one moment: Apple’s original “Retina” display resolution offered 340 pixels per inch. The latest iPhone 14 Pro runs at 460 pixels per inch. Estimates are that the Vision Pro runs at an astounding 34,000 pixels per inch. That’s one hundred times what the same company once proudly lauded as reality-worthy picture quality. Plus, the interface is conveniently controlled with your hands, not plastic controllers you might accidentally fling across the room.

Virtual, augmented, and “mixed” reality, long the province of tech writers and gamers, have typically fallen short of the sci-fi vision. Back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, there was a VR arcade we used to visit, a few blocks from campus, above a Mexican restaurant. You’d strap on a clunky backpack that was tethered to a giant set of cables, attached to this janky helmet that displayed blocky imagery inside. Since then, I’ve continued to dabble. I was temporarily mesmerized by the HTC Vive, but the company discontinued its consumer VR product line in 2021. Microsoft’s HoloLens was also a very impressive mixed reality device, but it appears limited to enterprise use with no public plans for new versions. Anyone who’s seen it in action will know that it’s the closest antecedent to what Apple just launched. My one meaningful experience in the augmented reality world came via Google Glass for a project at the MIT Media Lab nearly 10 years ago. We integrated that very early AR product into improv comedy shows (which I chronicled here).