Apple Vision Pro is coming next year, not only making for the Fruit Company’s much awaited first XR headset, but also spurring a resurgence in public interest (and likely investment) in the XR space. At $3,500, Vision Pro is undoubtedly an expensive steppingstone to the company’s future augmented reality ambitions, but even if it’s ostensibly ignoring virtual reality in the meantime, it probably won’t forever.

Apple has a tendency to undervalue gaming initially, though perhaps reluctantly, eventually acknowledges its importance. Gaming in XR is considerably enhanced by fully immersive experiences and motion controllers, and Apple will probably start feeling the pressure of that demand from gamers and developers alike when it kicks off a consumer headset sometime down the road, causing them to relent (if only just).

What is Vision Pro?

Like many, Apple is investing in AR today because the headsets and glasses of tomorrow have a good chance of supplanting smartphones and becoming the dominant mobile computing platform of the future. Long considered the holy grail of immersive computing, all-day AR headsets represent a way of interacting with new layers of information in daily life which would span everything from turn-by-turn directions to gaming applications—like Google Maps directions floating on the street in front of your car or a city-wide version of Pokémon Go.

Granted, Vision Pro isn’t yet the sort of device you’ll take out to the park to catch a random Zubat or Rattata—it’s very much an indoor device that Apple envisions you’ll use to sit down and watch a virtual TV screen or stand up in place to have an immersive chat with a work colleague. But as an opening gambit, Apple’s initial pitch of Vision Pro has been fairly telling of its strategy for XR.

In the ‘one more thing’ bit of the WWDC keynote, Apple lauded Vision Pro’s AR capabilities thanks to its color passthrough cameras, impressively responsive UI, and, from our hands-on with the headset, rock-solid hand-tracking. The company focused almost entirely on the work and lifestyle benefits of AR, and much less on the comparatively more closed-off fully immersed capabilities of virtual reality.

Image courtesy Apple

Considering just how much time and effort Apple has spent talking about AR, you may be surprised to find out Vision Pro can actually play VR games. After all, like Meta Quest Pro or the upcoming Quest 3, it’s basically a VR headset with passthrough cameras—what we’d call a mixed reality headset. In fact, the headset is already confirmed to support one of VR’s most prominent social VR games.

An important piece is intentionally missing however: Vision Pro doesn’t come with VR controllers and probably has no plans to support them.

Instead, Vision Pro is focusing on eye-tracking and hand-tracking as primary input methods, with support for traditional peripherals like keyboards and mice and gamepads filling in the gaps for work and traditional flatscreen gaming. This means many VR developers looking to target Vision Pro will need to pare down input schemes to refocus on hand-tracking, or create games from the ground-up that don’t rely on the standard triggers, grip buttons, sticks, and half-dozen buttons.

Still, many VR games simply won’t translate without controllers, which above all provide important haptic feedback and a bevy of sticks and buttons for more complex inputs. Not only that, Vision Pro’s room-scale VR gaming chops are hobbled by a guardian limit of 10 feet by 10 feet (3m × 3m)—if the player moves any further, the VR experience will fade away, returning to the headset’s default AR view. There’s no such limit for AR apps, putting VR more or less into a virtual corner.

Denny Unger, CEO of pioneering VR studio Cloudhead Games, nails it on the head in a recent guest article, saying that Vision Pro “appears to be a VR headset pretending not to be a VR headset.”

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Apple’s Chronically Late Adoption

Without speculating too far into its XR ambitions, it appears Apple is turning somewhat of a new leaf with Vision Pro. The company is reportedly departing from tradition by creating a dedicated Vision Products Group (VPG), which is tasked with spearheading XR product development. Apple typically distributes its product development efforts across more general departments, such as hardware, software, design, services, etc, instead of sectionalizing hardware development into individual product teams, like Mac, Watch, iPad, iPhone, etc.

Not only that, but the company is also publicly accepting applications for development kits of the headset and hosting a handful of ‘developer labs’ around the world so that developer can get their hands and heads into the device ahead of time. It’s a decidedly different tactic than what we usually see from Apple.

The company’s wider strategy still seems to be in play however. Apple traditionally enters markets where it believes it can make a significant impact and actually own something, making it oftentimes not the first, but in many cases, the most important Big Tech company to validate an emerging market. The paradox here is Apple is actually early to AR, but late to VR. Deemphasizing the now fairly mature VR in favor of potentially creating a stronger foundation for its future AR devices makes a certain amount of sense coming from Apple.

Meanwhile, Apple is reportedly preparing a more consumer-focused follow-up to Vision Pro that will hopefully cost less than a high mileage, but still serviceable 2008 Honda Civic. Whenever Apple pitches that cheaper Vision headset to everyday people, they’ll likely need more entertainment-focused experiences, including fully immersive VR experiences with VR controllers.

Image courtesy Apple

And while Apple still isn’t positioning Vision Pro as a fully-fledged VR headset, that doesn’t mean it won’t relent in the future like it does with many crowd-pleasing features on iOS that in many cases don’t appear until years after they’ve been available on Android. In classic Apple style, it could offhandedly announce a pair of slick and ergonomic VR controllers as a pricey accessory during any of its annual product updates, and of course pretend it’s some great home-grown achievement.

Another big reason Apple may eventually decide to un-hobble a future Vision headset is its strong hold on app revenue. Apple’s XR headsets are on the same path as its iOS devices, which means the company captures a slice of revenue from every app you buy on iPhone, iPad and Apple TV. Unlike Mac, which by all accounts is a second-class citizen for gaming, iOS devices seem to be getting their act together. Kind of.

In some ways the company has only just fully embraced gaming on iOS with the launch of Apple Arcade in 2019, which serves up a curated collection of high-quality games on iOS and Apple TV without any ads or in-app purchases. Still, it’s pretty clear Apple doesn’t have big gaming ambitions—it doesn’t hoover up game publishers or studios like Meta or Microsoft tend to—so if it does unharness Vision’s VR capabilities, it may do so without the same raison virtuelle d’être as Meta or ByteDance (the latter being the TikTok parent company that also owns the Pico XR platform).

Provided Apple can secure the same hefty market share with future Vision headsets as it does with iPhone today though, which is around 30%, it may be more inclined to stay competitive with more VR-forward companies. But it isn’t emphasizing VR now, or even really competing against anyone, which may be a safer bet as it ventures into some truly unknown territory. Once the ball gets rolling though, the Cupertino tech giant will have less and less excuse to not toss out a pair of VR controllers and remove some of the arbitrary restrictions it’s imposed.

When that might happen, we don’t know, but it does sound awfully Apple-like to sit on much wanted features and eventually release them with a flick of the wrist.

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Well before the first modern XR products hit the market, Scott recognized the potential of the technology and set out to understand and document its growth. He has been professionally reporting on the space for nearly a decade as Editor at Road to VR, authoring more than 3,500 articles on the topic. Scott brings that seasoned insight to his reporting from major industry events across the globe.
  • ViRGiN

    I really see why not – VR isn’t their area of interest at this point. Just like Valve.

    • impurekind

      Eh, VR is in Valve’s area of interest. It has already released a VR headset, made Half-Life: Alyx, which is arguably the best VR game to date, has a dedicated VR section on its Steam store, and is currently working on its next VR headset. You can’t get too much more interested in VR than that.

      • ViRGiN

        What sort of cope mechanism is this?

  • Nevets

    Apple is not the only fruit! Rumour has it that other companies have already managed to crack the enigma of producing VR headsets along with controllers.

  • ViRGiN

    LMAO, how many times you have blocked me already?
    You’ve been blocked by tons of people before for your obnoxious TYPING IN CAPITAL LETTERS and bolding everything to show how important you are. Not to mention to each-and-every-time upvoting yourself. Why?

    You took blocking some random online, and turned it into your whole personality LMAO. Go back to sadly bradley channel. I didn’t forget your several months long tirades how close we are to “valve dickard” lol!

  • ViRGiN

    Yeah, I did.
    Huawei can’t ignore VR forever.
    Nintendo can’t ignore VR forever.
    Coca-Cola can’t ignore VR forever.
    Hell, even Tesla can’t ignore VR forever.

    But Valve can, but let’s pretend it’s not true because you really want it to be. Oh wow, they continue running the store! SO MUCH VR COMMITMENT!

  • fcpw

    But they don’t have to- they build the platform and developers do whatever they want to with it.

    • Christian Schildwaechter

      … and developers do whatever they want to with it.

      Within the strictly enforced Apple rules regarding what APIs can be used, what types of apps will be approved, how data can be used, what types of input are possible, how the code has to be compiled, limits to tracking and external payments, adult content and a couple of other things. Sure, developers can create anything they want, but not anything they create will pass the mandatory manual checks and be let onto the store. If Apple doesn’t want it, you won’t get it.

      Any color so long as it is black.

      Henry Ford in 1909, when asked by sales personnel which colors customers could order the Model T in.

  • Octogod

    They have ignored VR in name alone. It is a “failed tech” so they’re going to a place that doesn’t have preconceived perceptions. But a huge part of this plan is VR.

    But rest assured, there will be both VR focused games and a large ecosystem of supported 6DOF controllers.

    • What indication is there that Apple got that says “VR is a failed technology …?? lol
      Quest 2 outsold fucking XBOX: and during Christmas, to boot!
      VR is many things.
      A “failed technology” is not among them.

      • Octogod

        I agree, but the public at large does not.

        They aren’t really looking at the data and making rational decisions. Most people would say you’re lying that new gen Xbox was outsold by VR, but the stats show that it’s true. As an example, Techcrunch had an article that “VR is dead” missing that it’s literally a billion dollar industry now.

        All of this is marketing to the general. They’re pitching a “new idea”, which just so happens to contain all of the pieces of the tech they think they hate.

  • You know, I really thought we had reached a kind of escape velocity with stigma around gaming back in 2016 or so. But recently, I’ve personally seen numerous examples of people still digging in hard to the old derogatory troupes about it.
    And then Apple does this, and it’s like I don’t even know what people are ultimately hoping to do with this medium. Nothing I’ve seen has come anywhere close to being as compelling as gaming. Maybe we’ll reach this theoretical threshold where the floating screens you have in-headset are as rich and vibrant as your 4k OLED HDR monitor, but that eludes current headsets by a country mile.
    After the initial wow factor of this headset wears off, the friction of entry starts to grind against your sole, are you really going to be compelled to put it on, just to engage with lower quality screens with a little more ease of use?

  • Christian Schildwaechter

    Edna ‘E’ Mode: NO CAPES!!!
    Apple Immersive Mode: NO CONTROLLERS!!!

    Before the AVP presentation:
    Apple: only ever talks about AR

    VR enthusiasts: they will make it at least VR capable, VR is too big to be ignored, and they will include controllers, because hand tracking doesn’t work reliably and all VR games need controllers for feedback and precision.

    During AVP presentation:
    Apple: shows a HMD that is technically VR with passthrough, doesn’t mention VR once, shows integration with the existing iOS ecosystem and apps plus work and media consumption use cases, all based on eye and hand tracking.

    After AVP presentation:
    VR enthusiasts: Once Apple releases a cheaper model, they will have to include VR because consumers will demand it, which will also mean they will have to release VR controllers, because you need controllers for feedback and precision.

    Apple: Invites 3rd party developers to create apps, including games for the “Immersive Mode”, but they have to play by exactly the same rules as all other apps and deal with the same restrictions. So all games will have to be based on eye and hand tracking. This works just fine, just as iOS games work with tap, drag, swipe and other gestures. No controllers are supported.

    During AV consumer version presentation:
    Apple: shows a HMD that is technically VR with passthrough, doesn’t mention VR once, but shows some games in “Immersive Mode” based on hand and eye tracking, and a lot more games for the AR modes that integrate objects into the regular living space, also allowing for collaborative play in AR while at different locations, all based on eye and handtracking.

    After AV consumer version presentation:
    VR enthusiasts: But once they start selling in large numbers, they will at least have to allow third parties to offer VR controllers, because all their new customers will demand it, and you need controllers for feedback and precision for “real” VR games.

    See the pattern?

    Maybe the VR enthusiasts are lucky and this time Apple will not prohibit 3rd party controllers from being connected via Bluetooth with the terms and conditions of their “Made for …” rules, like they did with the iPhone. They didn’t just ask developers to stick to the default input scheme, they actively prevented them from just port existing games requiring gamepads and leaving it to users to purchase controllers to play them.

    That went on for a while, and I’d say they had already fully embraced mobile gaming on iOS by 2014 the latest, five years before Apple Arcade. Back then they released the Metal graphics API to overcome the aging OpenGL ES that couldn’t fully benefit from modern GPUs, and thereby created the most powerful mobile gaming platform with a several year lead before Android 7 introduced Vulkan for comparable performance. Metal almost exclusively benefits games, most productivity apps would work just fine with OpenGL, so Apple switching the whole platform to a graphics API that especially benefits game development is a pretty obvious sign that Apple had embraced gaming as a use case and money maker.

    And Apple Arcade isn’t Apple attempting to enter gaming themselves. It is mostly about “sending a message”, a subscription service emphasizing Apple’s idea of a good user experience. So no micro transactions, no invasive ads, no long grinding to make you purchase items, no for pay cosmetic, no pay-to-win. It’s basically the anti-free2play: it costs some money, but it is easy to access and enjoy even for casual users, it doesn’t annoy or distract you from the experience you actually wanted, the whole experience is as frictionless as possible and it is curated to guarantee a high quality of all titles. Apple has embraced gaming for a long time, but their idea of good gaming may be different from yours. Don’t expect a title like Bonelab to ever make it onto an Apple curated AVP list of games.

    • Guest

      Uh, Apple has churned a graphic API every few years for decades. It may have more to do with getting more speed and locking-in developers to rewrite code, but it’s not specific to any specific use case such as gaming.

  • ViRGiN

    The projection here is really strong!

  • Let’s see… I’m not sure they MUST do it. For now it is even good for them to differentiate themselves from the others by taking this choice

  • philingreat

    There is a reason Apple doesn’t want full immersive 6DOF VR games. One of the most important things for them is that every single user who puts on the AVP has a good experience, meaning absolutely no motion sickness at all.

    • Jistuce

      I remember back when Oculus was still called Oculus, that was one of their big problems.

      Software for the Quest(I believe it WAS specific to the Quest) had to pass strict comfort guidelines, and the person setting the standards was very susceptible to motion sickness. The end result was that the games people wanted simply could not be released on the Quest until they relaxed their comfort rules.

  • Arno van Wingerde

    I still do not see any hardware reason why they cannot do it, anytime they feel like it. VP could easily support controllers and possibly connect to a Mac or PC to supply graphical horsepower if needed. But so far far, Apple politics is pointed in another direction. And… do we absolutely need controllers for each and every Game?

  • Why would it matter if Apple did ignore VR? They are a tiny, insignificant part of the PC market. Their market is pretentious, technologically ignorant people buying “status symbols”. It’s like a jeweler being worried about whether or not their diamond rings have Bluetooth. It would be like going to an expensive restaurant and seeing Nutritional Facts printed on the menu. Apple exists to do the absolute bare minimal work at the highest prices they can, for people with far more money then brains.

    Really, anyone buying Apple products knows so little about technology they’d be far more likely to buy a turn-key solution for VR, like a PS5. No thought needed, just plug it in and go.