Apple will face an uphill battle convincing developers to build apps for its headset

The ‘one more thing’ announced by Apple at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this year was the industry’s worst-kept secret. The Apple Vision Pro, the tech giant’s gamble on making mixed reality headsets a thing, has received a mixed welcome. Most of the concern has centered on the eye-watering $3,499 cost.

But there’s a bigger problem: Whether there’ll be enough apps available to make the cost of the device worth it.

Apple hopes the Vision Pro will fundamentally change how we interact with our devices. Freed from the constraints of a smartphone or tablet screen, Apple hopes we’ll embrace “spatial computing”, as its glitzy promo video shows. Strap the headset on around your forehead and you’ll see… what you saw without the headset, but with a row of app buttons overlaid on top of your field of vision. Gesture and eye tracking identifies where your focus is, allowing you to interact with apps without pressing buttons or a screen.

That could be great for consumers. But it’s a headache for Apple’s ecosystem of app developers. Apple was at pains to explain that existing apps designed for the iPad will work on visionOS, the operating system powering the Vision Pro, without any changes. But those iPad apps will simply be displayed within a metaphorical window, losing much of the functionality provided by a mixed reality headset. 

To fully take advantage of the technology, these apps will need tweaking to unlock some of the opportunities available when taking them off a screen and into the real world, as you’d get in fully native, three-dimensional, augmented reality apps.

The announcement was a momentous one for René Schulte, head of 3D and quantum communities of practices at Italian company Reply, which designs 3D environments as part of its business. But he’s worried that much of what was shown in the demo videos presented by Apple were limited uses of the opportunities given by mixed reality. 

“What I didn’t like was the focus on 2D content,” he says. Schulte has been working with Microsoft’s mixed reality glasses, the HoloLens, since 2015, and the Oculus Rift. He sees chances to overhaul the user experience for the Vision Pro that were missed.

In part that’s down to the challenges involved in redesigning apps for an entirely new interface. Schulte’s employers, Reply, published a white paper on how to transition apps from two dimensions into three last year. In it, they admit the change in mentality is not easy. 

“Designers need to learn new methods and skills, and also get used to new tools,” says Schultz. “Designing for 3D is not simply mirroring 2D concepts into three-dimensional space.” Yet that’s what he saw in—for instance—the presentation of Adobe Lightroom and Microsoft Office being presented as 2D apps within a 3D space.

Denys Zhadanov is a board member and ex-vice president of Readdle, a Ukrainian app development company that produces a suite of popular productivity apps across iOS. He’s enthused by the promise of the Vision Pro, but also recognizes it’ll require retooling Readdke’s apps. 

“We do have in our apps a lot of custom elements, so we will have to customize that and spend some time adjusting to match all of the things to run smoothly on Vision Pro,” he says. Nevertheless, he sees the augmented reality options made available by the Vision Pro as useful for his company’s apps. “I’ll need more time to explore those ideas,” he says, “but I think the device itself is phenomenal.” The imminent release of a software development kit (SDK) for the Vision Pro will help, he adds. (Apple did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)

But even with that support, some developers are uncertain about how to proceed. “I think the cost will be a huge issue for consumer apps at this point,” says Dylan McKee, co-founder of Nebula Labs, a mobile app development company based in Newcastle, UK. 

McKee, like others, will have to decide whether the time it will take to retool their apps for a new sort of display is worth the effort, given the potential audience for a product whose price point is way out of reach for many. Analysts Wedbush Securities forecast Apple will ship around 150,000 units of the Apple Vision Pro in its first year (in 2024). For comparison, the company shipped 55 million iPhones in the first three months of 2023. 

Readdle board member Zhadanov believes Apple is positioning the first version of the Vision Pro as “a toy for the middle class and upwards”. That will dictate the potential use cases for Readdle’s apps on the Vision Pro, and the design choices they make.

Still, with those small forecast shipment numbers, McKee will be shying away from expending lots of effort on the Vision Pro. “From my personal perspective, only one or two of the apps we build make sense to port to it really,” he says. One is an elite sports coaching app where players could benefit from real-time 3D analysis. The other is a medical training app. 

“I think the virtual simulations of certain training scenarios could be invaluable,” says McKee. “But both of these are niche products compared to the consumer apps we produce.”

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