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Why you'll need a VPN for the Vision Pro (and other XR headsets)

Gaming aside, what's the universal killer app for these novelty devices? The answer is exactly where a VPN comes in.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Before you think I'm being weirdly paranoid, or one of those people who demands a VPN on everything, think again. There is a very compelling use case for VPNs on mixed-reality headsets.

Also: 10 reasons the Apple Vision Pro is secretly brilliant

In this article, I'll talk about that use case -- and why VPNs are so important in that context. Finally, I'll share some thoughts on getting a VPN to work on your favorite "facebrick."

The killer app for XR (2024 edition)

Let's first clarify some terminology. This market segment goes by many names, including AR, VR, mixed reality, XR, and Apple's new happy place -- spatial reality. In this article, I'm going to call everything XR. 

XR has been with us for years, decades even. I tried a virtual simulator of a fighter jet way back in the early 1990s (I got shot down, and had to sit around for an hour before I could drive safely). Today's VR headsets are of much higher quality. I found the Meta Quest 3 easy to tolerate, and the Apple Vision Pro is universally praised as visually spectacular by everyone who uses it.

But there remains a big question: other than as a game platform or a novelty, what good are these devices? What are they really for? What's the universal killer app? What makes it worth rushing out to buy an XR headset to solve an RR (real reality) problem?

Answer: travel, and living or working in a constrained space.

Also: Meet Apple's Vision Pro: Price, features, hands-on insights, and more

Both the Meta Quest 3 and the Apple Vision Pro let you work on a virtual desktop as large as you want, even if you're sitting in coach on an airplane. Both the Quest 3 and the Vision Pro let you watch movies and TV as if you're staring at a 90-inch TV, even if you're stuck on the lower bunk of an on-ship crew's quarters, living out of an RV, or crossing the country in a Ford Escape and working out of hotel lobbies while running away from a devastating hurricane.

Yeah, that last example was my experience back in 2017, and the Quest 3 or the Vision Pro would have made my life so much easier. I had to work each night after traveling, and we had very little space to set up. My job often requires me to have multiple screens to reference a lot of source information, and doing so on a single laptop screen almost made me scream.

Also: The best VPN services: Expert tested and reviewed

Sure, there are many other uses for XR. ZDNET editor-in-chief Jason Hiner loves his Quest 3 for working out. There are potential XR training opportunities, and XR can even be used as a form of therapy to help treat psychological disorders.

I would argue that using XR while traveling or living in a small space is, however, the first killer app for these types of devices.

The obvious necessity of a VPN

So, if we agree that a killer app for XR in 2024 is travel computing, then a VPN is an obvious necessity. If you're unaware of the benefits of a VPN, here's a full explainer.

Also: Vision Pro: 9 reasons people give for ordering the $3,500 headset

The problem with traveling is that you usually depend on Wi-Fi. Unlike at home, where you control your router and service provider (within your area's options), when traveling you are at the complete mercy of whatever (usually) shoddy router is being provided by the hotel, restaurant, airport, or community access point.

Worse, those connections are often shared, and there's a fair chance someone might try to intercept your internet traffic (including personal identifying information and financial data).

Also: How to order Apple Vision Pro: Tips, tricks, and my secret to a good face scan

The primary protection for those who need to travel and go online is using a VPN to encrypt traffic as it leaves your computing device. Some companies require employees to connect to their corporate networks over a VPN for similar reasons.

How to use a VPN with an XR headset

I searched all the VPN providers, and none of the usual suspects explicitly mention support for XR devices. That situation will probably change over the next year.

As it turns out, the Apple Vision Pro has a VPN option in its Settings menu. In fact, the Vision Pro supports VPN operations through some VPN providers. I wrote a detailed step-by-step guide to show you how to use this connection.

Also: Why you'll need a VPN for the Vision Pro (and other XR headsets) - Prism

The key to success is looking in the Vision Pro app store in the iPhone and iPad tab. This approach lets you look at standard iPhone and iPad apps marked as Vision Pro-compatible. If you install one of these apps, they'll show up in the Vision Pro's Compatible Apps folder in the launcher.

As for other headsets like the Meta Quest 3, they derive similar operating system-parentage benefits as the Vision Pro, except the OS in those cases is Android. The Meta Quest 3 is a glorified Android device and its settings menus are reminiscent of Android. Other Android-based XR devices include the Quest 2, the HTC Vive Focus, and the Pico Neo.

I haven't found any VPN applications in the Meta app store. I did, however, find a YouTube video that shows you how to sideload a VPN onto the Meta Quest 3.

Also: The best travel VPNs of 2024

Be careful, though. The YouTuber, who identifies himself as Virtual Dude, recommends using a free VPN. I don't. VPNs are costly to maintain. If a VPN is free, the company behind it is somehow making up the costs -- probably using your data.

Virtual Dude also recommends sideloading an app that lets you sideload Android apps onto the Quest 3. His big caution is don't freak out if the screen goes black and the Quest crashes. It's probably a valid caution, but you're walking on the wild side here.

Also: Who's afraid of VR? I was - until I tried Meta Quest 3

That said, Virtual Dude's video is a proof of concept that VPNs can work on XR devices like the Quest.

Give it some time

Right now, VPNs aren't quite ready for use with XR devices, although I did use compatibility mode to make one work on the Apple Vision Pro. Because lower-priced units blasted off shelves during the holiday season, there is a business case for VPN vendors to start supporting at least the most successful XR platforms.

Given that the Vision Pro and Android-based XR devices use popular and well-supported operating systems, ports to XR versions of those systems probably won't be all that costly for VPN vendors.

Also: Inside VisionOS: 18 things developers need to know about coding for Apple Vision Pro

Vendors love low cost plus big opportunity. That's like catnip for them. There will undoubtedly be action in this space soon, and you can count on us to update you when it happens.

Now it's my turn to ask you some questions. Do you have an XR headset? Did you pay the big bucks for a Vision Pro? What is your use case? Do you plan on traveling with an XR device? Do you have any experience with VPNs on XR devices yet? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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