When Apple first unveiled its Vision Pro virtual and augmented reality headset, many were puzzled by the inclusion of a front-facing display screen. At first glance, it seemed like an odd design choice. But as details emerge about its capabilities, it’s clear this external screen solves one of VR's biggest challenges - enabling co-presence.
Co-presence refers to the ability to meaningfully interact with others while in VR. Past headsets completely obscured the wearer’s face, making it impossible to make eye contact or interpret facial expressions and body language. This created a major social disconnect, causing VR to feel isolating.
But the Vision Pro’s front display screen allows others to see the wearer’s face and eyes rendered in real-time. Integrated eye tracking and AR capabilities produce a video feed of the user’s eyes on the external display. This allows for natural eye contact and social signaling that feels face-to-face rather than walled-off.
For the wearer themselves, the internal graphics can dim to translucency when a non-VR user is present. This lets them maintain situational awareness. The combination enables engaging co-presence.
This makes activities like virtual work meetings far more natural when some attendees are in VR while others video conference in. The VR user can make eye contact and pick up on nonverbal cues from remote collaborators. Shared virtual experiences become more social.
While the front display results in a somewhat bulky headset design, it’s a tradeoff for the co-presence breakthrough. This humanizes VR interactions and may finally allow virtual reality to move beyond isolation into seamless integration with our social lives. As VR/AR matures into an everyday communication medium, the Vision Pro’s focus on social presence could be as important as the iPhone’s touchscreen was to mobile adoption.