February 2 is Groundhog Day, which also means one of my favorite movies gets replayed on TV. This year though, I almost forgot about that because I was geeking out because Apple's Vision Pro headset got released. Since then, I wondered how long I could wait before caving to at least check it out even though I have no intention of buying one. A couple days later Apple began letting people reserve demos in their retail stores, so I decided to when I found out that my local store had a surprising number of open spots available. I did the same thing when the Apple Watch came out in 2015.
I got there before the store opened and had plenty of time to check out the AVP headsets on display before my appointment time.
The AVP is actually smaller than I thought it would be. It really does look a lot like a heavy pair of ski or scuba goggles, but crossed with a pair of AirPods Max. The front of the headset is all curved glass which surprised me; no camera bumps anywhere, so you can't feel where any of the camera lenses are. On the top right side is the same digital crown from the AirPods Max, and on the top left is a long button, like the transparency button on the AirPods Max, except here it takes pictures and video, and I think I had to triple click to turn on VoiceOver.
The padded cushion that touches your face feels kind of like leather though I don't think it is. On the inside you can feel the lenses that sit in front of your eyes, kind of like the ones on glasses. The cushion and the light seal attach to the headset magnetically in the same way the ear cushions do on the AirPods Max. In fact, that's the way I would describe what the AVP feels like: AirPods Max for your eyes. The external battery is about the size of an iPhone Pro Max and a little bit thicker. It's just a big aluminum rectangle with an Apple logo in the middle, with a USB C port on the bottom and the braded cable perminently attached.
Once my appointment came up, they took me to a table and used an iPhone to scan my face for fitting. It was a lot like setting up Face ID, but I actually liked it better because you don't move your face in a circle. The guy had me look up and down and side to side several times, which was probably to ensure the best possible fit. I think he told me I used the smallest light seals and cushions they have.
A few minutes later, the guy brought out the Vision Pro on a wooden tray. He explained everything about it, including the proper way to pick it up and put it on. If you pick it up wrong the light seal will easily detach and your expensive headset will go crashing down. They tell you to pick it up with a thumb under where the headset goes over the bridge of your nose.
They only let me try the nit headband. It's kind of a stretchy fabric with a dial on it to tighten it. I had to make it was tight as it would go. The headband kept wanting to go behind my ears like a covid mask, which I quickly hated. I figured out that I could barely fit it over the top of my ears though which was at least a little more tolerable. I agree with a lot of mainstream sentament though; the headset is very front heavy and I did have to take it off a couple times during my demo time.
Setting up VoiceOver was actually a lot more frustrating than I thought. When you first turn on accessibility settings, it has you turn the digital crown to select the option you want and press to select. This was fine, except when I tried to get into VO settings to play with the gestures, it kept kicking me back out to the main accessibility set up screen. When I actively tried to look straight ahead so the specialist could see what I was looking at on his iPad, the same set up screen would pop up again.
Getting around the vision Pro
I had read up on the VO gestures before hand so I wouldn't have to spend as much time trying to figure out how to use the screen reader during my limitted time. Some of the default gestures are kind of backwards to me. I found myself doing the equivalent of flicking in the wrong direction because I was pinching the wrong finger with my thumb. The gestures can be customized though.
When the VO gestures worked correctly, it was awesome! It felt totally natural zipping around apps. If I could have an Apple watch control my iPhone like that, I would get one.The sound is also really good, which I didn't expect coming from the little audio pods on the sides of the headset. VO sounds are even spatial, so as you move between apps on the home screen, for instance, the VO sounds pan from left to right when you get to apps on that side of your view. I thought this was a neat touch.
But what I thought would happen is exactly what ultimately did. The AVP kept interpreting the slightest hand movements, and probably eye movements too, as input gestures, resulting in a lot of pop up dialogs, and even switching to different apps, that I wondered where they came from. Even when I turned off the eye tracking in VO settings, I kept getting a lot of spurious input.
Minimal app experiences
Normally the AVP demo is pretty guided, and they have people go through a series of apps to see what they think. They don't just give you a free for all during your time. Since I was using VO though, they let me try apps that I thought would be useful to me. I played with the music app, and was actually impressed with the sound the AVP puts out. To me, it sounded like a good pair of headphones, though to be fair I didn't spend a lot of time listening to anything because I didn't think to look up anything I was familiar with.
Then they had me check out the immersive video demo that they have in the TV app. Although it does have AD, it did nothing for me. It would've been exactly the same as watching a demo video from one of Apple's keynotes on my phone with a good set of headphones. That's kind of to be expected though, since the immersive stuff is totally visual.
But I must have had to restart that video about 10 times because I either couldn't get the language menu to come up so I could turn on the AD track, or if I did, when I tried to go back to the video player controls to start playing it again, I would get moved somewhere else and had to select the video all over again. This got frustrating really fast since I couldn't really do more than the equivalent of flicking through each element on the virtual screen.
That's what made me take the AVP off in frustration even though I got to play with it for an hour. Most of my time was figuring out how to navigate with VO. Every time I thought I was getting somewhere, a random dialog would come up or it would think I was trying to open the control center, or I'd end up on the status bar, or who knows where else. It was pretty disorienting. VO also uses the image descriptions feature to try to describe what the camera sees in passthrough mode. It kept telling me "four people in front of you" when I would try to look straight ahead. This was cool and a good consideration, but it got annoying quickly, much like when VO is constantly telling you when focus changes in the camera app on your iPhone. I'm sure this can be turned off though.
I already knew I wouldn't buy this yet even if I could afford one. I'm not sure how much value a blind person would get out of this right now. Just like I thought, using the Vision Pro with VoiceOver takes away all tactility. There is an equivalent to exploring your iPhone stcreen by touch, where you can tap and hold a finger and your thumb together, and as long as you hold them there, VO will speak what you are looking at. I found this way too sensative though. Perhaps it would get easier with time. At least on your iPhone you're dragging your finger around a flat sheet of glass, so you have at least some tactile idea of where things are in relation to each other. With AVP that's all just in virtual space around you.