Yesterday Apple ended years of speculation and finally announced a mixed reality (MR) headset. The US$3499 Vision Pro headset confirmed some expectations and confounded others.
IDTechEx has been tracking the mixed, augmented and virtual reality markets since 2015, with reports on headsets and accessories and optics available now and a report on displays for AR/VR soon to be released. This insight into the AR/VR industry and associated technologies provides context to IDTechEx’s initial analysis of Apple’s headset design philosophy. Following are highlights from the report.
Apple drives its chipset advantage home
Apple distinguishes itself by using its own chips instead of the Qualcomm XR2 series chipsets found in most VR/MR devices. The Vision Pro pairs an M2 chip, also found in MacBooks, with a new R1 chip designed for processing camera and sensor feeds. XR2 powered headsets like Meta’s Quest Pro can process 7 simultaneous camera feeds, which is respectable but has led to headset designers having to make choices between, for example, offering dual-camera MR passthrough or eye tracking. In contrast, the R1 processes 12 camera feeds in addition to six microphones and five other sensors.
This ability to handle more sensor inputs allows the Vision Pro’s interface to focus heavily on eye and hand tracking, making virtual interactions more natural at the cost of haptic feedback. Furthermore, the headset uses a robust dual-camera setup for video passthrough as well as integrating LiDAR and TrueDepth dot-matrix projection 3D cameras to facilitate 3D video capture and content interaction. While these capabilities are not unique to Apple, designing and integrating its own chips gives Apple the ability to combine more functionalities than other manufacturers can currently achieve.
Micro-LED displays: amazing images, but at a price
Micro-OLED, also known as OLED-on-silicon, displays are a hot topic right now, with their ability to offer incredibly high resolution and high brightness at small panel sizes. In May 2023 alone, Samsung acquired US micro-OLED firm eMagin and BOE’s 4K micro-OLED display for VR was the most hyped demo at SID Display week. Apple’s Vision Pro utilizes a 4K micro-OLED display with a 7.5 micron pixel pitch per eye, providing exceptional image quality and adding another vote of confidence to this display technology. Foveated rendering at the chip level is used to save processing power without sacrificing image quality.
The major tradeoff with shrinking displays in VR by moving from LCD to micro-OLED is a reduction in either eyebox (acceptable eye locations relative to the display) or FoV (field of view), which are linked to the display diagonal. Apple has released no details on either, but glasses wearers will need prescription inserts, and it appears that the interpupillary distance (IPD) may have to be adjusted in the store to the headset itself, a likely consequence of a small eyebox.
In contrast, headsets from Meta, Pico and others can be worn over prescription glasses while IPD can be adjusted on the fly – this makes it straightforward for the same headsets to be worn by many different users, a compelling attribute for enterprise use cases. HTC’s Vive XR Elite even builds diopter adjustment into its lenses, so many users can take their glasses off while using it. In contrast, Apple’s design choices may prioritize image quality and single-user comfort over multi-user sharing.
The headset also uses an outward-facing curved OLED display to show the user’s eyes during some interactions in a bid to reduce isolation from the surroundings when using MR. This innovative approach will facilitate interpersonal interactions while using the device but increases both power consumption and the bill of materials.
Beautiful, premium, compromised materials
The Vision Pro boasts a stunning design with premium materials such as aluminum and laminated glass. However, these materials contribute to the headset’s weight, prompting Apple to move the battery to a pocket-sized power bank for better comfort. High power consumption from the chipset and displays would also increase power requirements and motivate a larger separate battery.
Other headsets, like the Quest Pro and Pico 4, use lighter materials and place the battery at the back of the headband, helping to balance the headset. Apple’s decision to relocate the battery was necessary to maintain a pleasant wearing experience. The external battery makes changing batteries on the go easier, although the Vive XR Elite offers this already with a rear-mounted battery.
In summary, Apple’s Vision Pro headset stands out with its custom chipset, advanced sensor and interface capabilities, innovative display choices, and premium materials. However, it lacks easy compatibility with prescription glasses, and the separate battery pack appears inconvenient. It also did not bring some hoped-for additions like geometric phase lenses to correct the vergence-accommodation conflict. Apple has given no indication that it expects the Vision Pro to be a one-and-done device, so we can only expect the capabilities of its next headsets to grow alongside its MR ecosystem.