Looking Towards Our Brighter, Faker, Future

Opinions about the newly-announced Apple Vision Pro AR/VR headset

Earlier today, Apple announced an AR/VR headset that is being positioned as a new computing platform, and they introduced it with a promo from Disney showing The Mandalorian and Mickey Mouse and the Main Street Electrical Parade being shoved into your house in 3D.

So yes, as a matter of fact, I do have opinions.

Back in 2016, a kind video game journalist who followed me on Twitter invited me to come by their offices in San Francisco to try out the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. I was so impressed by Valve’s demos that I went all-in on the potential of VR, and before too long found myself working at a company doing physical therapy in VR. (I no longer work for Penumbra or REAL, but that team is doing some great work and I wish them all the best!)

In the years since then, my enthusiasm for VR and mixed-reality headsets has been diminished, if not aggressively stomped on, by all the impractical realities of these devices. They’re kind of uncomfortable, setup can be a pain, and it’s just fatiguing to wear them for extended periods over 45 minutes or so. Even for the games that don’t require a lot of physical exertion, I would get hot and sweaty just from having screens and a battery strapped to my face.

I’ve been wondering if the skeptics and cynics were right, and all the seeming potential of AR and VR was just illusory. Does it just make a great first impression but have no staying power? Is it doomed to be not just a niche, but a quickly-forgotten fad? Or will there be some sort of breakthrough that finally makes it “stick”?

I don’t know the answer. I do believe it’ll take more than just a software breakthrough, though. I can’t imagine any VR developers ever getting it so thoroughly right as the Half-Life: Alyx team did, and yet I still have yet to get more than a couple hours into that amazing game. No matter how brilliant the experience is so far, it still can’t win out over the inconvenience of having to hook up an HMD to my PC and go through all the hassle of getting Steam VR to cooperate with an Oculus headset.

Which is the kind of thing that traditionally, Apple gets right: smaller, lighter devices with an emphasis on user experience and usability. I’m one of those people who likes to say, “Apple rarely does it first, but they do it right,” mostly because I genuinely believe it, but also because it makes a lot of cynical people who work in technology eye-twitchy to the point of apoplexy.

People who spend a lot of time working in or using mixed reality like to talk about “presence.” I feel like it’s one of those impractical, intangible things that prevents AR & VR from having an immediately understandable and necessary use case. You either get it or you don’t. Either you find it enchanting and compelling to be immersed in an environment and to see virtual 3D objects in your real-world space; or you see it as novelty and are eager to get to the point of the experience. Or you see the limitations — like your hand passing through virtual objects — as breaking the suspension of disbelief and invalidating any “magic” from the initial novelty.

If it sounds like I’m being dismissive of people who don’t see the appeal, like I’m saying “Why do you hate magic and beauty and technology and America?!” I’m honestly not. I still don’t really know whether this stuff will find traction or not.

But I do know that Apple has a track record of being able to take devices from “overpriced novelty” to “essential,” has the money to be patient and give the platform the time it needs to get it right instead of rushing something to market, and the focus on integrated hardware + software that’s going to be necessary for something like this. It’s my hope that the potential is real, and it’s just a case that other companies have been so eager to make mixed reality a thing that they’ve released devices before they were fully ready to go mainstream. Or more simply: I think if anybody can make it work, Apple can.

Other random observations:

  • It’s still difficult to tell whether they’re positioning this as a standalone computer, or as something more like an iPad. If it’s the former, then a high-end M2 Mac plus a high-end wrap-around monitor would be close to the cost of the Apple Vision Pro. The price seems outrageous if you’re used to thinking of HMDs as gaming or movie-watching accessories, but not quite as bad if you’re thinking of it as a high-end computer.
  • That said, it’s almost certainly out of my price range, as much as I’d like to have one. As others have mentioned, I’m hoping that the “Vision Pro” naming is deliberate, and that there will be less expensive “Air” and similar versions to follow.
  • One of the biggest obstacles with any HMD is finding a way to keep it from feeling isolating. I was glad to see so much of the presentation address that directly, emphasizing how you interact with your own space and the people in it. Instead of dumping you into a 3d-rendered mountain lodge or zen garden and a crappy black-and-white, distorted passthrough camera the only thing keeping you from putting your hand through a wall or stepping on the cat.
  • That said, I can be an unapologetically pro-Apple fan and still say that the eyes on the front display are mad creepy. It’s a testament to how devoted Apple is to keeping it from feeling isolated, but still: brrr.
  • I didn’t notice any mention of AirPlay for the device, for letting other people see what you’re seeing in the HMD. It’s not as trivial a problem as it sounds, because it requires rendering an entire scene a third time to combine both eyes into one view, but it’s near-essential for making these devices less solitary.
  • This feels to me like version 1 of the watch and the iPad, where they initially felt like technology in search of a use case, but proved themselves over time. (To me, at least, who finds both indispensable). There’s a lot more tech involved in the Apple Vision that isn’t strictly necessary to make it function, but is necessary to make it feel like a seamless experience — in other words, it’s probably never going to feel as straightforward as a touchscreen tablet or a smart watch. I’ll be fascinated to see how it evolves as a product category.
  • It’s interesting how it’s being presented as an AR device first and foremost, but is still an opaque HMD instead of something like Google Glass or the Snapchat glasses. I’ve never used the latter devices, but I have to say that I’ve got more confidence in tech companies figuring out the capabilities and limitations of existing displays, instead of developing entirely new display technology. There are a lot of inherent limitations to anything that straps screens to your face — light, eye fatigue, and issues with how we see 3D — but there’s little possibility for immersion without a device that can block out the outside world.

4 thoughts on “Looking Towards Our Brighter, Faker, Future”

  1. This is the kind of thing where I think Apple’s saying, “we didn’t quite get there, but we got close enough we know we’ll be there in two years, so we have this compromise hardware so the software will start coming.”

    I think it’s being positioned AR first for exactly that reason – VR’s basically a dead end and they know it, so this is the bridge.

    The downside to me is that I don’t actually know if they’ll solve the problem to get to full AR hardware that’s easy to use fast enough. I’d hoped this announcement would show some sort of optical advance, but …?

  2. I’m not convinced that that’s their end goal. Maybe it is, but it seems that a device that can do AR with the option to extend into VR has more staying power and more flexibility.

  3. Yeah, sorry – it’s not just AR vs. VR. I think the “end goal” is really “invisible hardware enabling mixed reality”, and whatever your proportional mix is, it’s all possible.

    After a few days of contemplation, given the current “bulk” of a headset, and barring some sort of brain-computer interface that’d be morally tolerable, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s waveguide AR or pass-through MR, because it’s not a device you’ll wear around casually.

    Whatever the solution you could wear around casually, it’ll be huge, but until then, it’s the experience, not the tech, that’ll matter the most.

    1. Oh, I get it. That’s an example of how I’m terrible as a “futurist,” because I have next-to-zero interest in any technology that will take beyond my lifetime to achieve. Unless there are genuinely transparent LCD experiments out there.

      I agree that it’s kind of pointless to be pursuing something that is “real” AR unless you really do expect the device to be ubiquitous and worn casually. But even headphones — which are about as unobtrusive as we’ve got in terms of technology — require a mode switch and can’t usually be worn ALL the time.

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