Is virtual reality the future? Apple's betting on it, but VR experts say we may not be there yet
Costing $5K, the new Apple Vision Pro headseat is the latest big bet on virtual and augmented reality
Launched during the company's annual World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in Cupertino, Calif., the Apple Vision Pro is a wearable headset. The device will be capable of toggling between virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR), which projects digital imagery while users still can see objects in the real world.
It can be used for immersive experiences in everything from work meetings and FaceTime, to photos, movies and apps.
"Today marks the beginning of a new era for computing," said Apple CEO Tim Cook.
The headset, which Apple says will be available in 2024, won't be cheap, starting at $3,499 US, or about $4,700 Cdn.
While the Vision Pro was unveiled with some fanfare — it's Apple's first major product launch since its Apple Watch nearly a decade ago — investors gave it a lukewarm reception. Analysts warned the cost could be a major deterrent and the VR and AR industries have struggled to take off in the past.
"VR kind of resurfaces every 10 years or so as the big thing," Alla Sheffer, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia whose research areas include virtual and augmented reality, told CBC News. "And then it goes away."
The question on many people's minds: is this time different?
What's the difference between VR and AR?
To grasp the technology's implications, it helps to understand the technology itself. Traditional virtual reality is a computer-generated environment. Typically, a user wears a head-mounted display or headset like ski goggles, Sheffer explained. But instead of looking through those goggles, users see a display.
"You only see the virtual content. You don't see the outside world," Sheffer said.
VR also includes capture setups, and software that responds to them: think, for example, of a virtual reality golf game where you're moving your hands, and that's captured automatically and translated into a gesture using a virtual golf club.
There are two types of augmented reality, Sheffer said: head-mounted display, and cell phone. With head-mounted display AR, imagine you're wearing the same ski goggles, but now they're transparent. You can see what's in front of you in the physical world, but you can also see what's on the screen.
Cell phone AR, Sheffer explained, combines what you see on your phone's camera with virtual elements. Imagine choosing a couch model on a retail website, and seeing it in your living room through your phone's camera.
"You probably interact with AR a lot and don't realize it," said Bree McEwan, an associate professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto, and the director of the McEwan Mediated Communication Lab.
Pokemon GO, Snapchat, TikTok filters and even Google Maps already utilize AR, McEwan said.
What already exists in this sphere?
The Vision Pro combines both VR and AR in one device, McEwan and Sheffer explained. But Apple is far from the first company to venture into the virtual and augmented worlds.
There are a number of VR headsets already on the market, including Meta's Oculus Quest 2 and Pro. Its Quest 3 is set to launch later this year, starting at $499 US or about $667 Cdn. That device will feature colour mixed reality, which combines augmented and virtual reality elements, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Meta's Quest 2 and Quest Pro devices comprised nearly 80 per cent of the 8.8 million virtual reality headsets sold in 2022, according to an estimate by market research firm IDC. Still, Meta has struggled to sell its vision of an immersive "metaverse" of interconnected virtual worlds and expand the market for its devices beyond the niche of the gaming community.
When Snap, the company that owns SnapChat, made AR glasses, "they went nowhere," Sheffer said.
"AR didn't take off the way people thought it would," McEwan said, noting there have been a number of technical issues.
Sheffer said the struggle may come down to a simple issue: "Humans don't like to wear things on their heads."
What are the real-world applications?
Right now, the biggest use for VR is games, McEwan said, adding: "Games is a big business."
It's also been used effectively for simulators, such as driving and flying simulators, practicing sports, and for training purposes, Sheffer said. "I think there's a lot of value there."
Virtual reality is also being utilized in medicine and medical research; to make cancer treatments less stressful, to grant final wishes in palliative care, and to keep surgical skills sharp, to name just a few applications. Some therapists are incorporating the technology into treating phobias and anxiety.
It's also used for interpersonal skills and public speaking training, McEwan said. Education is another major opportunity, she added. In one of the classes she teaches, McEwan gives students headsets and they do five weeks of classes virtually. It's a model she started utilizing during COVID, instead of using Zoom.
Screen-based AR is already used in several industries, such as warehousing and manufacturing, Sheffer said, where you can point your camera at an object and a recognition software identifies it.
So, is the future virtual?
McEwan sees a potential future for headsets in the business sphere, and predicts more organizations may start providing them for meetings and training. And if people get comfortable using something in a business setting, that may bleed into the social environment, she said, noting that's what happened with e-mail and intranet messaging systems.
But while there's what she calls a "cultural imagination," for popping a device on your head and appearing in the metaverse, she said we're not there yet. "The average person is probably not quite ready to jump into VR all of the time."
Whether or not headsets are going to finally take off is what Sheffer calls "the billion-dollar question." VR had surges of popularity over the last several decades, but people didn't want to wear the headsets, she said.
"I think if anyone can make it, it's Apple," she continued. "If they can make the headset convenient, and make people want to wear it, then all of the sudden this can go places."
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters