The “something else” that Apple announced at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is the industry’s best-kept secret. The Apple Vision Pro, the tech giant’s bet on a mixed reality headset, has received mixed reception. The new device is an engineering feat, but it also comes with an eye-popping $3,499 price tag.
But there’s another issue that could be a problem: getting third-party developers to develop native apps.
Apple hopes the Vision Pro will fundamentally change the way we interact with our devices—once we are freed from the constraints of a smartphone or tablet screen, We’ll embrace “spatial computing,” as shown in the glitzy promotional video. Gestures and eye tracking recognize where your focus is, allowing you to interact with apps without pressing buttons or screens.
This could be great for consumers. But it’s a headache for Apple’s app developer ecosystem. Apple explained that existing apps designed for the iPad will run on visionOS, the operating system that powers the Vision Pro, without any changes. But those iPad apps will appear in a metaphorical window, losing much of what mixed reality offers.
To take full advantage of this technology and make the leap from the screen to the real world, these apps will need to be adapted.
For René Schulte, 3D and Quantum Community Leader of Practice at Reply, an Italian company that designs 3D environments as part of its business. But he worries that much of what’s shown in the demo video limits the opportunities that mixed reality should have.
“What I don’t like is the focus on 2D content,” he said. Schulte has been using Microsoft’s mixed reality HoloLens glasses and Oculus Rift since 2015. He thinks Vision Pro missed some opportunities to revolutionize the user experience.
Partly due to the challenges involved in redesigning an app for a new interface. Reply published a white paper last year on how to take applications from 2D to 3D. In it, they admit that the shift in mindset isn’t easy.
“Designers need to learn new methods and skills, and get used to new tools,” Schulte said. “3D design is more than just mapping 2D concepts into three-dimensional space.” However, that’s exactly what he saw in presentations of Adobe Lightroom and Microsoft Office.
Denys Zhadanov is a board member and former VP of Readdle, a Ukrainian development company that produces suites of popular iOS productivity apps. He was enthusiastic about Vision Pro’s promise, but realized it would require a redesign of Readdle’s application.
“We do have a lot of custom elements in our app, so we had to customize it and spend some time tweaking it to match everything to run smoothly on Vision Pro,” he said. Still, he finds the augmented reality options offered by Vision Pro useful for his company’s applications. “I need more time to explore these ideas,” he said, “but I think the device itself is remarkable.” He added that the upcoming release of the Vision Pro software development kit (SDK) will help. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
But even with this support, some developers are still unsure how to proceed. “I think cost is going to be a huge issue for consumer apps right now,” said Dylan McKee, co-founder of mobile app development company Nebula Labs in Newcastle, UK.
McKee and Everyone else, like everyone else, will have to decide if the time it takes to redesign their app for a new display is worth the effort, since the product’s potential audience is a high-priced product out of reach for many. Analyst Wedbush Securities predicts that Apple Vision Pro shipments will reach about 150,000 units in 2024. That compares with 55 million iPhone shipments for the company in the first three months of 2023.
Zhadanov believes Apple is positioning the first version of the Vision Pro as a “toy for the middle class and above.” This will determine the potential use cases for Readdle’s applications on Vision Pro, as well as the design choices they make.
However, McKee will avoid spending a lot of effort on the Vision Pro due to the small expected shipments. “From my personal perspective, only one or two of the apps we build meaningfully port over to it, really,” he said. One is an elite sports coaching app where players can benefit from real-time 3D analysis. Another is a medical training application.
“I think virtual simulations of certain training scenarios can be invaluable,” McKee said. “But both are niche products compared to the consumer apps we produce.”