Popular tech giant Apple is breaking into a new industry. As a major purveyor of personal computers, smartphones, and smartwatches, it is now entering the virtual reality market with a splash.
Apple’s newest electronic product is called the Vision Pro. It’s being advertised as a mixed reality or AR/VR headset. According to reviewers, it is similar to many other VR headsets already on the market, which doesn’t exactly match the professional theme Apple is going with. One reviewer from the Verge said, “Apple made a VR headset, but it’ll never admit to it.” Apple CEO Tim Cook often used AR, or augmented reality, in his announcement.
Vision Pro is a new development in virtual reality and its similar fields, but can it truly be called virtual reality if Cook proclaims it to be specifically augmented reality? Apple’s direct competition to the Vision Pro is Meta’s Quest Pro, which is also meant for mixed reality and virtual reality applications, designed to bring the metaverse, the next evolution of the internet built on various kinds of 3D technology, real-time collaboration software, and blockchain-based decentralized finance tools, into reality.
So, what’s the difference between Apple’s use of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality? Where exactly does the Vision Pro, and other headsets like it, fit?
A Review of Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality vs. Mixed Reality
What are the differences between virtual, augmented, and mixed reality? Augmented and mixed reality are different sub-types of virtual reality. At its core, virtual reality is a 3D environment that enables users to explore and interact with virtual surroundings in a way that approximates reality as it is perceived through a user’s senses. There are variations of virtual reality called non-immersive, semi-immersive, and fully immersive, which Tech Target broke down in their article “Virtual Reality.”
Non-immersive VR is a 3D simulated environment typically accessed through a computer screen. Usually, the user controls the environment through a keyboard, mouse, or other device, but the underlying aspect is that the environment does not interact directly with a user. Video games are a perfect example of non-immersive VR.
Semi-immersive VR is typically the type of VR offered by most VR headsets, as it provides a partial virtual experience accessed through a computer screen, glasses, or headset. The most crucial aspect of semi-immersive VR is that this type of VR focuses on visual 3D. It usually does not incorporate physical movement like fully immersive VR. According to Tech Target, the most common example of semi-immersive VR is flight simulators for airlines and the military.
Fully immersive VR is what Apple, Meta, and other companies are currently exploring. This type of VR completely immerses the user in a simulated 3D world that incorporates sight, sound, and, sometimes, touch. Users often wear special equipment to interact with such a world, such as headsets, gloves, or goggles. The most significant strides in this field have been made through the gaming industry, which has been long exploring the applications of fully immersive VR before Apple and Meta came into the picture.
So, if virtual reality has different variations depending on how immersive the experience is, where does mixed and augmented reality come into play?
Augmented reality is currently the most prevalent variation within VR projects outside the gaming industry. In augmented reality, virtual simulations are often overlaid with real-world environments to enhance or augment those environments. A popular use of AR within the last several years was Pokémon Go, which projected a Pokémon onto a user’s phone screen and whatever the camera was pointed at.
Augmented reality presents limitless possibilities in phone-based AR software, which Apple seems highly interested in. Over the last several years, augmented reality has been utilized in numerous scenarios and by dozens of industries to aid users, from projecting furniture into a space so prospective buyers can better visualize to reviews popping up on camera when directed at a restaurant. The most popular method to utilize AR currently is through phone cameras, as most AR headsets are still far too bulky and expensive to be used in everyday life.
This is something that mixed reality is addressing.
Mixed reality is another name for augmented and virtual reality merged together. Mixed reality, MR, or XR, has become a catch-all for many reality-shifting technologies. Mixed reality is primarily utilized through VR headsets while incorporating AR into its use. Mixed reality is a broad and extensive spectrum, as it can describe any portion of AR/VR that merges. Apple’s Vision Pro, like Meta’s Quest, displays mixed reality like this.
Most VR headsets have outward-facing cameras, which can provide a view of what’s in front of you. Within VR, the environment that someone sees within a headset is often not the environment around them. It can often be a whole new space from the interior of a centuries-old castle to a spaceship, or whatever setting is selected. Mixed reality headsets will consider the outside surroundings and factor them into your actions while using the headset.
This can be anything from setting borders around real-world objects to prevent accidental run-ins or taking detailed measurements of such furniture and building these objects within your virtual environment. Mixed reality offers other features, from powerful color cameras that give you a clearer view of your surroundings to projecting a virtual keyboard representation onto a desk for you to type. Meta’s Quest and Apple’s Vision Pro offer these features.
Apple’s Vision Pro Overview
To effectively capture all the possibilities mixed reality offers, Apple utilized a lot of cutting-edge equipment to obtain a nearly seamless and true “mixed” reality. Unlike Meta’s cartoonish avatars, Apple’s approach is far more realistic, according to users who tried the Vision Pro. CNBC writer, Steve Kovach, described the differences between Meta’s Quest Pro and Apple’s Vision Pro starkly.
“Meta’s most advanced headset, the Quest Pro, feeds you blurry pixelated images of the outside world, Apple Vision feels like you’re looking through a glass, not at a screen.”
Kovach went on to detail his experience, the capabilities of Apple’s Vision Pro in clearly displaying Apple’s notable apps over his vision, and the physical interaction used to open each one. Like Meta’s Quest and other headsets, Apple's Vision Pro tracks eye movements to recognize and highlight what users look at. External cameras capture physical movements and augment virtual reality within the glasses depending on the movements, such as opening or closing apps.
Apple incorporated some of the latest and greatest electronic components to accomplish such feats to obtain a near-flawless integration of reality and virtual reality. This included high-resolution optics, dozens of sensors, Apple-designed processors, and the Macs' same M2 processor. The software processes input from twelve cameras, five sensors, and six microphones.
Mike Rockwell, the head of Apple’s Technology Development Group, said, “Handling that rapidly cuts the latency between head movement and the corresponding change in the display's field of view down to just 12 milliseconds, about an eighth the duration of an eyeblink. Low display latency is essential to avoiding nausea that some VR and AR headset wearers suffer.”
Apple’s Vision Pro offers an extensive and exciting look into the ongoing developments within mixed and virtual reality possibilities. VR and its variations are still relatively in their infancy and only now exploring the opportunities outside of the gaming industry, which for the longest time dominated its use.
Apple recently acquired Mira, an LA-based AR start-up that makes AR headsets for other companies and the U.S. military. The acquisition’s announcement came one day after Apple unveiled the Vision Pro, further cementing Apple’s interest and commitment to exploring the virtual reality space.
With Apple’s entrance into the AR/VR/MR space, there is a strong possibility that other tech giants will follow suit or re-invested in old programs. With new advances in artificial intelligence (AI) due to the popularity of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Nvidia is leading the charge in the current AI revolution. Apple’s interest in virtual reality alongside new capabilities in AI could foster the perfect breeding ground for breakthroughs.
Likewise, working toward a true metaverse would require advanced and suitable mixed reality technology. If companies work consistently toward bringing the metaverse into reality, seeing more projects like Apple’s Vision Pro will be steppingstones.
Electronic Components in the Virtual Reality Revolution
Mixed reality and augmented reality are two sects of virtual reality that are still very much in their infancy. While virtual reality and its capabilities have been around for some time, with non-immersive, semi-immersive, and fully immersive, it still has a long road ahead. There is a possibility Apple’s announcement could trigger a boom of interest like OpenAI’s ChatGPT did with AI, but it might take more than a $3,499.00 headset to do it.
That said, the technology that goes into mixed reality headsets like Meta’s Quest Pro and Apple’s Vision Pro are exploding in their capabilities and improvement. As a result of the 2020-2022 global semiconductor pandemic and the resulting chip glut, numerous government incentive programs are popping up to draw original component manufacturers (OCMs) to their shores.
With more funding in the electronic component sector, the likelihood of chipmakers creating components capable of meeting the requirements for all facets of virtual reality may be pretty close. Outward-facing cameras and environment-scanning technology will be able to improve over time, creating a far more seamless “mixed reality.” Eventually, every VR headset would become a mixed reality device. Applying sharp guidelines for the next stages is hard when so much is yet to be discovered.
One thing is true, VR headsets will be able to be scaled down, much like computers, as the electronic components that power them also shrink in size. Semiconductor nodes are expected to reach 1.4nm by 2027, only four years from now. The price for these pieces of technology is likely to be far more affordable than the $3,500 tag Apple’s Vision Pro currently boasts.
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The world will only become more advanced as virtual reality improves in its seamless integration with reality. Ready to get started?