February 25, 2024

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Before you think I’m being weirdly paranoid, or I’m 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 about why VPNs are so important in that context. Finally, I’ll share some thoughts on actually getting a VPN to work on your favorite facebrick.

The killer app for XR (2024 edition)

For the sake of our sanity, 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 just going to call all of that 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 for an hour before I was safe to drive). Today’s VR headsets are of much higher quality. I found the Meta Quest 3 to be very easy to tolerate, and the Apple Vision Pro is universally praised as being visually spectacular by everyone who has used it.

But there remains a big question: Other than as a game platform or a novelty, what good are these things? What are they really for? What’s the universal killer app? What makes it worth rushing out to buy one in order 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 Vision Pro let you work on a virtual desktop as large as you want it to be, 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. But my job often requires me to have multiple screens, so I can 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 of XR. ZDNET editor-in-chief Jason Hiner loves his Quest 3 for its workout capabilities. There are potential training opportunities using XR, and XR can even be used as a form of therapy to help treat psychological disorders.

But my premise in this article is that using XR while traveling or living in a small space is the first killer app for this category of computing.

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 not familiar with what a VPN does, 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’re usually dependent on Wi-Fi provided by wherever it is you happen to be. Unlike at home, where you control your choice of router and service provider (to the limits of those available in your area), 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 that someone might try to intercept your internet traffic (including personal identifying information and financial data).

The primary protection for those who need to travel, and need to go online, is using a VPN to encrypt traffic as it leaves your computing device. Some companies also require their 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 usual VPN providers, and none of the usual suspects had any explicit mentions of XR devices where they provide support. That will probably change over the next year.

That said, the Apple Vision Pro does have a setting for VPN in its Settings menu. I don’t have a Vision Pro, but I ran the Vision Pro simulator in Xcode and found the menu item shown in the screenshot at the top of this article.

In some ways, this makes sense. The Vision Pro is pretty much a glorified iPad. VisionOS is what you might get if iPadOS and Snow White’s Magic Mirror had a baby. Both iOS and iPadOS have VPN modules built-in, and also have hooks for third-party products such as NordVPN, IPVanish, and ExpressVPN (three of the VPNs our editorial team has rated the highest).

Also: The best travel VPNs of 2024

Because I don’t have a Vision Pro here, I can’t dive into that menu item in any depth. The simulator simply lists VPN & Device Management under the General tab, but clicking on it does nothing.

Stay tuned. Given that there’s already a VPN section, I expect this support to be available fairly soon.

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

I’ve explored the Meta app store for VPN applications and haven’t found any. However, I did find a YouTube video that shows how to side-load a VPN onto the Meta Quest 3.

Be careful, though. One YouTuber, who identifies himself simply 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 making up the costs somehow — and probably from your data.

Also: Who’s afraid of VR? I was – until I tried Meta Quest 3

He also recommends side-loading an app that allows Android apps to be sideloaded onto the Quest 3. His big caution is to not freak out if the screen goes black and the Quest crashes. It’s probably a valid caution, but you’re definitely walking on the wild side here.

That said, Virtual Dude’s video constitutes a definite 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 Prime Time on XR devices. But with the use case mentioned, and because lower-priced units blasted off shelves during the holiday season, there’s clearly a business case for VPN vendors to support at least the most successful XR platforms.

But we’re not there yet. With the possible exception of whatever is behind the VPN & Device Management menu on the physical Vision Pro unit, there’s no sign of supported VPN operations on XR platforms.

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

The thing is, since both the Vision Pro and the Android-based XR devices are using popular and well-supported operating systems, ports to XR versions of those systems probably won’t be all that costly for the vendors.

And you know how vendors are when it comes to low cost plus big opportunity. That’s like catnip. 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 pony up the big bucks for a Vision Pro? What is your big 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.

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