This is silly, it's 2024. Plus, Apple's strategy to make VR cool (again?)
VR Comfort is one of those issues that’s always prevalent in customer’s minds, most often because there’s usually some source of discomfort that they’re feeling at any given time, something that pops in and invades their immersive experience.
It’s one of those topics that I find myself often talking about with software developers and experience designers, because of course it’s massively important to make your experience comfortable and usable for as many people as possible, and because it’s also something that can easily impact their immersion, and distract from the illusion that they’re coming to VR for in the first place. The market for VR is still small, still growing, and it’s hard to argue that comfort is a significant hurdle that impacts the experience, and is one of the things standing in the way of wider adoption.
But comfort in VR is affected by hardware just as much as software. VR hardware manufacturers pay an awful lot of attention to the main eye box unit and everything contained inside it, and are happy to tell us all about how they’ve spent a lot of time and money to develop and source the most cutting edge technology to go inside it. All to improve the frame rate, the resolution, and always, always these will mention comfort as a major benefit. Better frame rate means more comfort. Better visuals mean less eye strain, more comfortable text reading. Better tracking to stop glitches and stutters that can make people feel queasy. Better tech means a better experience in-headset, and there are many comfort benefits that arrive alongside this. Manufacturers never fail to mention this aspect, as it’s a great spotlight to attract anyone who’s felt funny in VR and is wary of repeating it, or someone who has heard about VR sickness and don’t want to even try the tech until it’s been ‘solved’. As VR technology advances, comfort advances as a result, and it’s an endlessly beneficial framing device for any marketing campaign.
But at the exact same time, many of the headset manufacturers seem to be overlooking a fundamental source of annoyance for existing users, and a regular point of failure for users who will try out the VR occasionally, and new users encountering a headset for the first time. And the crazy thing is, in so many ways it’s a much simpler problem than the technical or software challenges, and one that is already solved, and that is cheap to fix. In fact, it’s so easy to fix that a large and healthy third party marketplace has long existed just to service the problem. They’re successful because it’s something that almost every headset that’s released gets wrong, and users in the know are happy to pay a small amount to upgrade their equipment for a massive comfort benefit.
Fitting a VR headset can be a complete pig, and wearing one for even short periods can be a real pain. Literally.
Think about it. Before anyone can start using this amazing device and even see the front menu, long before they can actually fire up any software experiences that they actually want to see, they have to be wearing the device. It’s the first and last touch-points we have with VR. We have to get in to use it, and then we have to get back out when we’re done. And at both ends it’s often clunky, often awkward, always impossible to do glamorously, and frankly it relies on the user longer-term figuring out a process to follow so that it can be reliably repeated – do I put the headset on then try and find the controls? Do I grab the controllers first and then try and fit the headset? Do I turn it on first or after? And then more crucially – how do I make this thing look clear? How do I position it on my face correctly so I’m not looking at a blurry image with offset colours? And once I’ve got it there, how do I keep it there?
So fitting the headset quickly and correctly becomes a part of our VR rituals. We adjust the straps, get everything tight, and feeling alright, and set off into a virtual world forgetting all about it. Until that inevitable point sometime in the next 5-30 minutes, when it’s too tight, or it’s slipping down our face, or pulling our hair at the back, or hurting the bridge of our nose, or making us sweat. And we have to stop, and make an adjustment, breaking our flow, shattering our immersion, and reminding us in the moment of how awkward and impractical this silly, expensive face-hat actually can be.
Unlike VR sickness, this is something that EVERY user goes through. And, like finally getting your car seat just how you like it, you’ll have to go through the whole process again if you let someone else have a go at driving. And of course they’ll have to go through the process themselves when they have a go, just to get it right for them. And you’ll probably have to help them. How well the headset fits, how easy it is to adjust and tune to any given head size and face shape, and how easy it is to keep it in the right place during use – it’s unintuitive, it’s abrasive, and it’s unwelcome high friction during an experience, and on a technology, which are working hard to be as low-friction as possible.
Weight distribution and general attention paid to form fit is an area of VR hardware development that doesn’t get talked about too much as a selling point, but there are very big differences in approach which can and will make a significant difference for the use. I’ve heard and read enough anecdotal examples over the last 10 years of consumer VR to strongly suspect that these are the features that can ultimately make or break the user’s long-term use of the hardware, and can influence their brand loyalty, and their future interest in VR. It's always been a constant talking point for every commercial headset released.
But not all VR headsets are comfortable straight out of the box. In fact, it's a rarity, and a major source of brownie points in reviews and social media commentaries when it's done with any kind of competence.
Meta have received praise for many aspects of the Quest line with each update, but their out-of-the-box head straps have never an aspect that seemed to progress in line with the rest of the technology. Quest 1 was all-in on the rubber straps, Quest 2 went for fabric, and both got roundly criticized by heavy users for their lack of comfort over long periods. The weight balance for any VR headset is naturally all towards the front of your face, so weight distribution is an essential consideration. The Quest Pro finally addressed this by taking a more luxurious approach with a padded hard strap, large cranial cup, and the benefit of the battery weight being moved to the back of the head. It wasn't perfect out of the box, and it lacked a top-strap to help bear the load, but it seemed like a step forward in overall comfort, an important consideration for a wearable targeted for extended productivity.
Apple, facing several recent hands-on critiques of the Vision Pro's comfort issues, and with their seemingly oven-ready solution of making packing in the formerly optional extra dual-loop strap at no extra cost, would seem at first blush to be learning some hard lessons around physical user comfort, which is not surprising because as Apple would phrase it, these are personal spatial computing devices. And the emphasis is on the personal. We’re all human, but we’re all different in our height, our weight, our head shape, our face shape, our arm reach, our visual ability, our inter-pupillary distance, and our physical capabilities. It’s never been a secret that a major challenge with these devices has always been how we can tailor the device to fit any user comfortably so they can wear one for a reasonable length of time. And to be entirely frank, Apple looks like they have tripped up on not only an old problem, but one that’s seen historically better solutions than Apple have engineered. I suspect this on purpose, a compromise and stratagem devised to weather a rough patch of sea they've long seen coming. But I'll come back to that.
The importance of user comfort was such a major consideration when we were making the original PlayStation VR a decade ago that a ski-strap design – which at that point in time we’d all just got to experience with the original Oculus DK1 kickstarter release – was immediately ditched in favour of Sony’s halo design that had been used on their headsets since 1992’s Visortron. The suspended eye-box unit maintained a clear distance from the user’s head, and no part ever touched their face. This was important culturally in Japan, but also ticked one of our major user research findings, which was that when asked, plenty of people didn’t want to try something that would mess up their hair and make-up. It also keeps the hot electronics away from the users face and enables easier airflow and cooling. Not only that, but the adjustable hanging eyebox leaves plenty of room for users to wear their own spectacles if they need to, so there’s no need for prescription lenses (although, again, plenty of after-market solutions emerged for those that wanted them).
Lots of VR devices now use this Halo configuration, and those that don’t have plenty of aftermarket options to upgrade to the design. It’s a popular style with or without the suspended eyebox, because it does a great job of distributing the weight more evenly than through the ski-strap tension of pulling the front load against your face. It’s not perfect, but it’s a design that addresses many of the fundamental user needs, and is generally comfortable over longer sessions. Plus, it's much more pleasant to try someone else's headset that's barely been touching their face (although the forehead pads can still get icky over time, but it's a single area usually designed for easy wipe-down, unlike most facial interfaces from ski-strap designs.
The trade-off is that it's less stable for fitness use or extremely active gaming because of the way it rests on your head like a hat. If you're regularly diving and rolling under enemy fire, a halo band isn't the ideal choice. As such some other users prefer a hard band, but one that still pulls the eyebox against your face to keep it in a rock-steady position rather than the Halo-style suspended eyebox. Halfway between a ski-strap and a hat, there are plenty of 1st and 3rd party designs in this space too.
With Apple’s designer-styled ridged back panel, we have something that certainly looked like it could be more comfortable than a basic strap, and there was a lot of speculation when the first images surfaced. As with all things Vision Pro, there’s always been a sense that looks are trumping utility and user comfort in some major places.
They've made interesting choices with the styling of the headset as well. Like the Quest Pro, they've steered the look as far away from the box-on-your-face look of traditional VR headsets as they can, and instead channeled an Aspen-ski-culture chic that’s probably more relevant and appealing to the Apple core. Whether you find it ugly or attractive, it’s certainly hoping to grab attention, and look different. Cutting edge fashion can get away with being uncomfortable and making you look strange, because you’re there to turn heads. So have the Vision Pro’s looks come at the expense of comfort?
Because it’s a first generation device with a mandate to grow consumer interest and dictate a foundational experience, rather than making sales, Apple might just have taken their eye off the ball with regards to some of the hardware ergonomics and shareability. The need for an appointment to scan and measure the customer for a good facial interface fit before they’ve even tried it is either the most Appley thing Apple could think to do to make this feel like an event more than just a gadget launch, or else it’s a shortsighted and unsustainable solution to a problem that every headset has found simpler ways to deal with.
From a design point of view, those ergonomics and how the user will have to handle the device seem to have been demoted to a lower rung of the priority ladder than how it looks in their marketing imagery. It’s most striking aspect, the laminated glass ski-goggle front piece, is not only an unnecessarily heavy component to have furthest out from the user’s face (thus putting more strain on the straps) but it’s also front-heavy, rounded, and thus will need care that when you put the headset down, it’s not going to tip forwards and wobble like the world’s most expensive Weeble. It also looks like it’s going to be the exact sort of thing that will get scuffed easily even with careful use (don’t catch It with your wedding ring) and so would seem like the sort of extravagance that probably wouldn’t have made it through the early elimination rounds based on design, cost or weight at another manufacturer.
And while we never expect Apple to be big on games, exercise and fitness are a huge sector for them, and is such an easy, obvious entry point for new VR users. But that use-case was underplayed at the announce, with focus more on wellness and meditation. That seems odd, and from a marketing point of view you’d think this would be a more compelling use-case to showcase than 3D video. But the whole pitch painted a picture of a somewhat sedentary and laid back experience. It’s possible strenuous physical interactions don’t will fit well for the device or its current headstrap, and perhaps we’re seeing signs that, alongside the issues surfacing now, we might soon find sweat, exercise or energetic gameplay movements might variously pose problems keeping with the unit in-place and comfortable, or that a sweaty headstrap is a fairly horrible experience at the moment. Plus, is there anywhere flattering in your gym outfit to stick a battery puck that weighs more than a large phone? And at $3500 plus tax, it’s going to be a pretty expensive piece of exercise equipment to replace if anything goes wrong, or the USB cable gets snagged (it's permanently attached the the unit, but not the battery). I’m speculating of course, but I do find it interesting that exercise hasn’t been foregrounded as a use-case. Perhaps Apple just couldn’t think of a new term for it because spatial exercise just means... normal exercise.
Speaking personally, the last VR headset that I didn’t feel the need to replace aspects of the fitting for 3rd party upgrades was the Valve Index, which still remains one of my most comfortable headsets to wear for long periods of time. Meta Quest headsets have all had soft straps replaced with hard fittings, mostly to enable counterbalancing the weight. In my experience, weight balance is the most important factor; the Valve Index I mentioned as still the most comfortable headset to wear is also the heaviest on the list below. However, depending on the strap and light-seal you're using, it's weight can be pretty much the equivalent of attaching a 12.9" iPad Pro to your face - and would be around 1kg if the battery weight had been incorporated in the headset. It's worth taking a sobering moment to think about what a factor battery weight is for all headset designers, and also to shine a light on standalone headsets like Quest which have the battery housed on board, and really are a modern marvel of weight optimization.
Apple Vision Pro
Approx 600g to 650g (yes, this is vague but blame Apple for not revealing this important spec!)
Meta Quest 3
515g (the out-of-the-box strap still makes this feel heavy, even though by specs alone it’s the lightest)
Meta Quest Pro
722g (Really nice firm Halo strap, better balanced, very comfortable)
810g (A hard-strap setup with top strap. Super comfortable and well balanced)
Sony PlayStation VR 2
560g (Halo, not especially comfortable fit out of the box due to pad thicknesses, but very effective weight distribution allowing long use time)
So it’s great that aftermarket solutions exist to help improve comfort, but why are they necessary? Why does user comfort seem to be the thing that gets trimmed back when the cost analysis comes in?
Many headsets run by platform holders are sold at a loss already, making the money back on software purchases that can run on the device. Costs are pared back as compromises and hard decisions are made throughout development, component prices carefully monitored, and hardware combinations modeled and tested. Finally a decision must be made, a price is arrived at, and a spec is defined. But few headsets at this point will be expecting to make a profit on the the hardware alone. So it always makes sense for them to trim both pounds and pennies wherever possible.
But the delivery of the experience seems to still be too low on the list of priorities, and I think that’s a huge mistake. Sure, if we can swap the parts out ourselves using any of the myriad aftermarket options available for $20-60, then in theory it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for a user. It’s a small upgrade cost compared to the price of the headset itself. If they equate it to the cost of another game or app, and weigh up whether the improvement in comfort while wearing it for the rest of the device’s life feels like better use of that money, then for many it will seem like a no-brainer. (And for those of you who have uncomfortable VR headsets and want to bump up the comfort, I heartily recommend a trip round your local browser to look at the myriad of offerings from companies with cool and crazy names lik BoboVR, Eyeglo, GOMRVR, CoooPoo, Lichifit, SuperUs and Globular Cluster.)
But I can’t help thinking that if buyers can see this as an additional value add, and in many cases an essential mod, then the manufacturers should be seeing the same thing. Based on Amazon prices for aftermarket upgrades from these third parties, which will be paying license fees to the manufacturers and Amazon and still making some profit, some quick cig-packet math suggests manufacturers should be able to offer us amazingly comfortable wearable computing for around $20 more on the manufacturing cost. Probably less, I ran out of room on the cigarette pack. But they often don’t – the fabric straps and thin foam pads on headsets like Quest 2 and 3, PSVR2, Pico and many others tend to look and feel like they cost the manufacturer pennies rather than pounds.
There's one more pattern that's worth bearing in mind, too. The length of a typical user session on the device is going to have a significant bearing on how comfortable the out-of-the-box fitting needs to be. Tethered headsets that are powered from a PC or Console can let users play as long as they want to, and tend to offer the best comfort in their base models. Standalone vanilla headsets rarely last 2 hours before needing to be removed and recharged, so it only has to stay comfortable that long. However, even a short amount of time in a heavy-feeling and unbalanced headset can be an uncomfortable experience. It may be data-driven reasoning for Meta to ship Quest 3 with such an uncomfortable fabric strap, because it's bearable for the 90m the charge usually lasts, and they do offer their own (expensive) upgrades at a 100% markup over their competitors if it's a problem for you. Meta will have data that proves this is the best business decision for them, one feels sure. But it's a frustration they're not doing more to help a wearable that's only slowly gaining ground in the public perception, and is popularly seen as looking uncomfortable from outsiders.
And it bears wondering if this makes sense? How many potential customers have tried VR without a comfortable fit and sworn it off for that reason above others? How many actual paying customers have returned their unit or sold it on because they never found a comfortable fit with the vanilla configuration? And how may potential customers don’t have any desire to even try VR because there’s never a time they’d welcome their hair or makeup getting ruined in front of others? Even the apologists amongst us should recognise that we know that it’s time to stop our VR experience when the bridge of our nose is starting to feel too tender, or the facial interface is tickling our nose or bothering our skin? A comfortable fit might not be the #1 reason, but these are expensive wearables that are not comfortable for some people to wear. Manufacturers may need to do get their own cigarette packs and do some math of their own here and see if they can spot the obvious solution.
Let’s put it plainly – how many of us would pay an extra $20 for the ‘deluxe comfort’ version, or $30 with doubled battery life, if it was offered at checkout – a very high proportion of buyers, I would think. That manufacturer would be seen to be raising the bar in quality and comfort for doing that. There must be better business in how they're doing it now, for whatever reason, because these companies are extremely smart at finding better ways to juice every aspect of their offering to maximize revenue. Sure, that's what businesses are there to do, but at the same time they're turning a deaf ear to the endless calls from their users that their headsets aren't comfortable to wear out of the box.
Apple clearly aren’t sparing any of their user's expense on build quality and materials with the Vision Pro, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume this was going to be one of the most comfortable headsets ever made, with a price to reflect that. Apple’s customers picking up the Vision Pro are going to be paying a lot of money, even by Apple terms, for this personal, personalized face computer. Tailored fits with face scans and an in-store fitting service are a required part of Apple’s retail offer, so accommodating the physical needs of each individual user seems very much in pursuance of delivering an elite-class of personal computing device.
But ultimately, the cheapest components, the fabric strap and the plastic arms connecting them to the unit, may be it’s weakest link - but not for mechanical reasons. Comfort is already high on the list of feedback points from the early Vision Pro users, and as such it’s likely to be a major priority for the inevitable second-gen update – a safe assumption given the prestige early adopter price and difficulties in building more than 100k first gen units this year. And it’ll be a big-ticket, easy and cheap thing for Apple to improve.
The confluence of events suggests to me that this has been Apple's game plan all along. They knew what they were showing wouldn't be the reality that users would end up with. But the goggles look less Sexy-Aspen and more 'Is that a VR Headset?' with the horizontal strap attached, and Sexy-Aspen is one of the major differences Apple are banking on to bring in enough of their own early pioneers and carve out their own slice of the XR landscape. After all, if they can put their flag in it, they have as good a chance to colonize these largely unexploited lands as any of their rivals. And their ultimate goal isn't to conquer VR and remake it in their own image. This is just a stepping stone to optical Augmented Reality; video pass-through allows a virtual practice zone so they, and their creators, can solve the issues of how interfaces and interactions will need to work, ready for when true optical AR spectacles can be a reality. As such, it's wise to always watch what Apple are doing, because their strategies for Spatial Computing are always going to be moving them towards that promised product land.
At the same time, as calculated as it might have seemed that the strap announcement was framed as a bonus pack-in and shuffled in with the more exciting news of pre-order and release date announcements on Jan 8, Apple's apparent strategy here still carries risks.
For the user, the risk is that of ruining the expensive and luxurious experience buyers will be expecting. It's like buying a Ferrari Roma that ships with Kwik-Fit tyres. It’s the equivalent having a beautiful tailored designer suit, made of the rarest vicuña wool, and then finishing off the detailing with cheap poppers or Velcro in place of antique buffalo horn buttons. They’ll work, but it’s a choice that stands in stark contrast to what customers will be expecting, to what could have been, if only for a smarter choice from the tailor, and which might ultimately make that suit get left in the wardrobe gathering dust more often than you intended.
For Apple, the risk with this strategy is that they're inevitably inviting the ridicule that they clearly want to avoid, that of being recognised as another VR headset in a market where what the user sees on the inside has always been far cooler than what others see from the outside. If Vision Pro users don't find the unit comfortable for their purposes, they will be able to fix this with aftermarket solutions, albeit at a higher premium than equivalent solutions for Quest or Pico headsets. But seeing beautiful Aspen-Sexy Ski goggles turn into Unsexy bulky VR headsets, all straps and buckles and battery packs and cables, is going to give commenters and meme-makers a field day.
It feels like Apple have carefully strategized their way through a bit of a minefield with how they've been presenting Apple Vision Pro thus far, but I wonder if they can ever be ready for the opponents they're going to face - all those who never drank the Apple Kool-Aid, the have-nots who feel jealous and excluded, the haves who chose to return it, and the merciless trolls lurking under the social bridges of Xwitter, Instagram, TikTok and Reddit. By nominating XR's exterior stylings as such an important objective, they've been very effectively using coolness as one of their key weapons. But they face enemies who know exactly how to use that weapon against them.
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