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Apple used the Vision Pro’s $3,499 price tag to give the headset every advantage over the competition. It has dual 4K displays, runs one of the best laptop chips in the business, and comes with sophisticated eye- and hand-tracking technologies. But it also has one advantage money can’t buy: Apple’s developer ecosystem. Perhaps the headset’s single biggest advantage will be the ability for iPhone and iPad developers to easily plug their existing apps into the device’s operating system using familiar tools and frameworks.
Already, the system stands in stark contrast to headsets from Meta, Valve, PlayStation, and HTC, which mostly rely on apps and games made in Unity or OpenXR to power their virtual and augmented reality experiences. While some competitors, like the Meta Quest, have key apps like Microsoft Office, Xbox, and Netflix, offerings beyond this are limited. In the several years that Meta’s headset has been out, the Meta Quest Store has only released about 400 games and apps. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a sign that there’s a serious lack of content optimized for VR.
Unlike other headset ecosystems, though, Apple is promising hundreds of thousands of apps on day one, a feat it’s able to pull off thanks to work on other platforms. Apple will automatically convert iPad and iPhone apps to “a single scalable 2D window” that works on the Apple Vision Pro — with no work required from developers unless they want to make any changes. And for the developers who want to create something new for the headset, Apple is making it easy for those already acquainted with its ecosystem to create apps for visionOS, its new mixed reality operating system.
“visionOS is not so different than iPadOS with ARKit”
“visionOS is not so different than iPadOS with ARKit, the augmented reality kit that developers have had access to for a couple of years now,” Maximiliano Firtman, a longtime mobile and web developer, tells The Verge. “iOS and iPadOS developers will be able to use their classic UIKit apps, Unity apps, or their more recent SwiftUI apps for visionOS.”
The frameworks developers can use to build apps for iOS and iPadOS — SwiftUI, RealityKit, ARKit — have all been “extended for spatial computing,” Apple says, allowing developers to craft immersive AR and VR experiences for the Vision Pro. They can also build their apps with the tools already available to devs, including Xcode and Unity as well as Apple’s upcoming Reality Composer Pro that should let devs “preview and prepare 3D content” for visionOS apps.
Firtman adds that even though the visionOS software development kit isn’t out yet, web developers can still use “WebXR for immersive web apps and web experiences using Safari on visionOS… as most of the knowledge needed to create apps is already out there.”
This means that, in addition to Apple’s native apps, we’ll likely see a lot of iOS and iPadOS apps make their way to the Vision Pro at launch.
For developers making the jump, Apple is encouraging them to expand what their apps can do. A simple port might display an app on the Vision Pro as a “Window,” creating a floating version in mixed reality. Apps with 3D elements might present content as a “Volume” that adds depth that’s viewable from all angles. More immersive apps might build a “Space” that can take up a user’s entire view.
“Apple will want to feature apps that take advantage of the new Volume and Space app paradigms,” Steve Moser, an iOS developer and the editor-in-chief of The Tape Drive, tells The Verge. “I imagine developers will want to quickly recompile their existing iOS and iPadOS apps for visionOS so that they will be on the visionOS AppStore on day one and potentially get an opportunity to be featured by Apple.”
This is good news for Apple, which is looking to prime its App Store with services making its headset useful. But the approach falls short in one area where Apple’s competitors are strong: gaming. When the device comes out early next year, Apple says it will house over 100 games from its Arcade service, which is a nice perk, but most of these games aren’t built specifically for VR. That makes a pretty big difference, as users could just as easily whip out their iPhone or iPad to play an Arcade game, rather than put on an entire headset just to play Angry Birds Reloaded or Temple Run.
After all, people are buying the Valve Index or the Meta Quest 2 just so they can access libraries of VR-only games like Beat Saber and Half-Life: Alyx. A lack of serious VR titles risks putting the Vision Pro in the same position as the Mac — a device mainly for productivity, not a hub for gaming. While Apple is trying to coax game developers into putting their titles on macOS with a new porting tool, the fact is that most developers aren’t prioritizing Mac as a platform because the majority of gamers use Windows, and up until now, Apple didn’t exactly make it easy to bring over games from other OSes. (We’ll still have to see how well these newly ported games actually perform.)
“They clearly aren’t focused on the current VR ecosystem and game developers like myself, but that may be the right move in the end.”
Even though Apple’s headset might not immediately have some of the riveting experiences that come along with playing VR games like Arizona Sunshine and Blade and Sorcery, it’s not likely to make or break the headset’s success. “They seem to be nailing all of the points that Meta has been fumbling for [the] last few years, namely overall UX,” Blair Renaud, VR game developer and the director of IrisVR, tells The Verge. “They clearly aren’t focused on the current VR ecosystem and game developers like myself, but that may be the right move in the end. For the industry to move forward, we need all the things I mentioned, not just incremental hardware improvements.”
Apple’s slow, careful approach to VR is reflected within the device itself. Instead of presenting you with a somewhat jarring and unfamiliar UI that engulfs your reality, the Vision Pro surfaces a set of recognizable apps that exist atop your real-world environment thanks to video passthrough. Of course, there is the option to turn on full VR using the digital crown, but Apple mainly left this application for watching movies or replaying videos. You won’t have to worry about getting used to controllers, either, as you can navigate through the device using just your eyes and hands.
Based on first impressions of the Vision Pro, the technology is clearly there for it to succeed. But like most devices out there, the apps are what make it. Fortunately for Apple, it’s easier to build upon a foundation that’s already been established, rather than build one from scratch.