Unity announces beta program for Apple Vision Pro: Let the AR/VR games begin!

The popular game development platform is coming to the Vision Pro, which opens the door for a lot of new content for Apple's upcoming AR/VR headset.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Apple Vision Pro

The Apple Vision Pro was just announced on June 5, 2023.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

As a tech journalist, I get a lot of press releases. Most of them I ignore, either because they're completely unrelated to the areas I work on, or because they're announcing something too unremarkable for coverage.

But sometimes, a press release gets you thinking. That was the case this morning when I read that Unity is launching a beta program for Apple's Vision Pro. While I'm intrigued by the Vision Pro, it's $3,500+ price tag definitely turned me off. But what if one of my all-time favorite games were available on the Vision Pro?

Also: Apple's Vision Pro: A concept prototype with this enormous potential

Cities: Skylines came out a few years ago, and was a modern-day SimCity, done really, really right. I built cities and left them running to grow and grow. This year, Cities: Skylines 2 is due out, with a lot of improvements and added features. There's no doubt I'd like to play it.

But here's the first area that got me thinking. Would I want to play that on the Vision Pro? Cities doesn't really lend itself to an AR-like environment. I wouldn't want to build a little city that looks like it's sitting on my credenza or coffee table. I like building big cities that are way too big to even picture inside my living room. So does the game even align with the Vision Pro's vision?

Also: I tried Apple Vision Pro and it's far ahead of where I expected

These are the sorts of questions game producers are always thinking about. Moving an existing intellectual property (IP) to another platform can be hugely expensive and time-consuming. But that's where this morning's press release about Unity caught my attention.

Unity is a game development engine, kind of like a software-building kit. Developers use it to create 2D and (mostly) 3D graphics environments. Usually, those are for games, but they can also be used for movie and film special effects and professional tools, like architectural design.

The live-action version of the Lion King movie used Unity. Directors Steven Spielberg and Denis Villeneuve use Unity as part of their visual effects toolbox. Games like Pokemon Go, Subnautica, and the aforementioned Cities: Skylines are built using Unity.

And that brings me back to the question of how Cities: Skylines would be when played on the Vision Pro. The power of Unity's announcement of support for the Vision Pro is that it makes porting IP like Cities: Skylines much, much easier, and considerably less costly.

Also: Apple sneaks into the AI chatbot race with 'Apple GPT'

What that means is that vendors like Colossal Order (the maker of Cities: Skylines) can afford to take a chance and port their games to the Vision Pro, even if it's an unproven platform with an as-yet unproven use case. The existence of the Unity engine on Vision Pro opens the door for a ton of existing work to be ported to the Vision Pro.

Given how expensive the Vision Pro will be, and how small the user base will be, it's not going to be economically viable for most software developers to build apps solely for the Vision Pro. But if porting existing apps is made easy, then the incremental cost for supporting a nascent platform with a relatively small user base becomes actually practical.

"We know there is a huge community of developers who have been building incredible 3D experiences using Unity's robust authoring tools, and we're so excited for them to build apps for Apple Vision Pro," said Mike Rockwell, Apple's vice president of the Vision Products Group.

Also: Inside VisionOS: 17 things developers need to know right now

He continued, "Unity-based apps and games run natively on Apple Vision Pro, so they have access to groundbreaking VisionOS features including low latency pass-through and high-resolution rendering. This enables Unity developers to take full advantage of the powerful and unique capabilities of Apple Vision Pro. We can't wait to see what incredible experiences are created."

Unity's announcement went beyond simply announcing support of the Vision Pro for existing Unity-based IP.

Unity is introducing a new technology it calls PolySpatial, which works in concert with Apple's RealityKit. This will allow content that's built for Unity to share the look and feel of other apps within VisionOS.

Unity developers can also preview projects built with the Unity Editor directly inside the Vision Pro, so the device can be an integral part of the development process. By making previews possible earlier in the build process, it allows for much faster iteration of user experience development.

Also: Apple Vision Pro first take: 3 reasons this changes everything

"We're thrilled to be working with Apple so our ecosystem of millions of game and app developers can bring their Unity apps to this exciting new platform," said Ralph Hauwert, SVP & GM, Unity Runtime, Editor and Ecosystems.

"With Unity PolySpatial," Hauwert says, "We are making it more efficient and streamlined for developers to create all new immersive experiences using the Editor they know and love. This is core to our promise of enabling developers to create once and ship anywhere."

While there may not be all that many first-gen Vision Pro devices sold, this announcement shows that the software base for the Vision platform will have the potential to grow relatively quickly with a substantial library of quality content. That means that subsequent-generation devices, which are expected to be lower in cost, will have a fairly robust third-party software market right out of the gate.

Also: Wear glasses? Apple's already expensive Vision Pro headset will cost you even more

As for me, I'm still not convinced Cities: Skylines would be a good fit for the Vision Pro. But then again, I'm a geek and I'd love to try it out, so I'm thinking I better start saving my pennies. Because if Cities: Skylines 2 does release on the Vision Pro, I may have to actually get one.

If you're interested in signing up for the Unity/Vision Pro beta, visit www.unity.com/spatial.

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