Apple’s next challenge: It needs apps for its Vision Pro headset, but it’s not on sale yet

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Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks with members of the media next to Apple’s new Vision Pro virtual reality headset, during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference at the Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California, June 5, 2023.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

On Monday, Apple revealed its $3,500 Vision Pro “spatial computing” headset to the public ahead of a planned launch early next year.

Now Apple needs to convince developers to make apps for it, even though the hardware isn’t widely available yet.

App support for the Vision Pro will be critical for its success. While iPad apps will be able to run inside the headset, Apple hopes developers will go beyond porting simple 2D windows to the platform and create full 3D apps that weren’t possible before on tablets, phones or laptops.

“We always viewed this first generation device as a new tool/platform for developers — who now have 6+ months until the headset launches — to create the ‘killer app’ that takes AR/VR from niche to mainstream,” wrote Morgan Stanley analyst Erik Woodring in a note Tuesday.

In a technically focused presentation published by Apple on Monday, called the Platforms State of the Union, Apple said developers would be able to simulate apps for Vision Pro inside Xcode, the primary program for building software for Apple devices. Coders can run and debug inside the simulator and navigate around the 3D space using their keyboard or a game controller.

Apple is also planning to give some software makers early access to the hardware. It announced on its website it will take applications for a developer’s kit. Apple will also host developers’ labs in California, London, Munich, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo, with hardware access. Programmers will have to apply to attend those too.

All this effort is to ensure the app store for the Vision Pro is stocked when it eventually goes on sale.

Apple is likely to succeed at bringing several apps to the device on the first day. Microsoft said its Office suite, historically a must-have for new operating systems, will be available for the new platform. Disney+ will also be available for the headset, bringing movies and TV shows. Apple is offering compatibility evaluations of existing iPad and iPhone apps through its App Review department so developers can determine how it might work in VisionOS and easily port their games or software.

But Apple’s hope for third-party apps goes beyond flat windows floating in space. In Monday’s presentation, Apple highlighted a few third-party apps that broke away from static floating windows and showed 3D content interacting with the real world.

“Spatial experiences can take many forms and can include 3D objects that look and feel real,” the Apple presenter said.

Apple highlighted Complete HeartX, which shows a 3D beating heart that can be taken apart to see how it works. JigSpace put a model of a giant F1 racing car in the demo living room, and Sky Guide turns the user’s entire ceiling into a planetarium. A version of djay Apple previewed puts virtual turntable decks on the table in front of the user.

Better FaceTime shown

At the end of Apple’s developer-focused presentation, it previewed a version of FaceTime that wasn’t shown in the main launch video, hinting at what Apple wants to see from its developers.

“We want to take FaceTime to the next level on Vision Pro and empower users to interact like they’re actually in a room together. This experience is still in an early form, and we’re excited to share it with you here for the first time,” Jeff Norris, senior director of visionOS apps at Apple, said in the video.

In the main presentation Monday, Apple revealed its new “personas,” or digital recreations of a person made with artificial intelligence so they can show up in a video call even when they’re wearing a headset.

In Apple’s pre-recorded presentation Monday, it showed a version of FaceTime where people who are videoconferencing are displayed in floating tiles, including the virtual-recreated personas of someone using a Reality Pro headset.

Apple’s approach to build realistic avatars contrasts with Meta, whose representations of people in its virtual reality have been distinctly cartoony and lacking legs. Microsoft‘s stand-ins are also cartoony.

But in the “next level” version of FaceTime shown in the developer keynote, the 3D avatar was no longer bounded in a box. Instead, the persona’s head floated in space.