I like Mastodon quite a bit, but for whatever reason, the bad takes on there do triple psychic damage on me compared to other places. Monday during the WWDC presentation felt like a cavalcade of performative anti-capitalism, and it was exhausting being reminded so forcefully and so frequently how I was a corporate shill for not thinking that everything on display at Apple was complete bullshit.1I have no doubt that there were a tiresome number of ride-or-die Apple fans gasping at the wonders on display, but I feel like it’s a lot easier to just shrug and let them have their thing.
Also I don’t know WTF that AR/VR headsets have to do with heat pumps, but one YouTuber took to Mastodon to scold all of us for being more excited about dinosaurs coming through magical portals into our living room, than efficient HVAC systems. I hope you’re all proud of yourselves for murdering our only planet Earth!
Anyway, there were a couple of takes that I thought were pretty interesting, from people who’ve actually tried out the Apple Vision Pro headset.
One was a first impressions video from Marques Brownlee, which I liked because he’s able to talk about this stuff with the healthy skepticism of somebody who’s seen a lot of devices pushed by companies as being the next big thing, but isn’t too jaded to say when a new piece of technology feels “magical.” If we can’t get excited about this stuff, and instead are doomed to just wallow in minimum-viable-product-induced cynicism, then what’s the point in following it at all? There are plenty of parks outdoors that one might enjoy.
Another was this post from Ben Thompson on his Stratechery blog, where he quotes himself from Twitter but is otherwise pretty insightful. He has some interesting observations about mimicking AR with a headset that is technically VR (instead of using actual glasses like Google Glass, for instance); and he also takes some time to guess where Apple might be positioning the Vision product line, based on what they’ve done in the past with the Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
To me, the common thing that stood out in both was the emphasis on the personal and societal implications of this device, beyond its technology.
MKBHD said he didn’t like the demo of 3D photos at all, and he thought it was too creepy to imagine a dad wearing this headset to take video of his kid’s birthday party. Thompson says that he felt that Apple’s demos seemed sad and lonely; a man looking at photos or watching videos of family events while alone on a couch suggested “a divorced dad, alone at home with his Vision Pro, perhaps because his wife was irritated at the extent to which he got lost in his own virtual experience.”
I think it’s fascinating that so much of the conversation about the device is already about questions like these, because it suggests that a dramatic shift is imminent. And that the difference between this and previous dramatic shifts in technology and society is that we can see this one coming.
A good bit of Apple’s presentation was reminiscent of Black Mirror. I think it’s telling that the reports from people who’ve used the Apple Vision headset2In a controlled demo environment, of course haven’t objected to the WWDC video as looking faked or staged. It really does look like it does in the videos and advertisements. By every account that I’ve seen, the team at Apple has actually achieved the tech shown in their demo videos, and it’s at the level of near-future sci fi concept art.
“Congratulations on achieving the most cynical and dystopian vision of a bunch of clinically depressed British television writers!” is, admittedly, an odd take. But I see it as optimistic, because we’re talking about technology not just in terms of what it can do, but in terms of how it feels and how it can affect us on a societal level.
I vividly remember being in an AT&T Store and seeing the first iPhone: I was so impressed by the screen that I thought it had to be a pre-printed sticker, no color handheld display could possibly be that sharp3I ask that everyone take that as an indication of how quickly display technology has improved, not as an indication of how gullible and easily-impressed I am., and it would be amazing to have a portable touchscreen that was always connected to the internet. I had no idea how fundamentally it would change things, and how much it would creep into my everyday life.
Here, we have a better idea of the implications and ideally, we can steer it in the right direction.
And even better, the conversation is already talking about the right things. Back when the iPad was released, for instance, it was all either “lol it sounds like maxipad!!!!” or “what’s the big deal it’s just a big iPhone” dominating the conversation. I didn’t see anyone with the foresight to predict what it’d mean for increased screen time for kids, or the implications of the App Store model on a more general-purpose computing device than a smart phone4In other words: there have always been people complaining about the “walled garden,” but they always focused on principle instead of practicality. I want my primary and essential communication device to be safe from malware, even if it means I lose some control over what I can put on it..
One of the (many) frustrating things about Facebook/Meta buying themselves into the role of Stewards of VR is that they’ve controlled the messaging about what VR can be capable of, and what is and isn’t important, and they’ve often been clumsy about it. A prime example is the whole non-issue about avatars not having legs. The reality is that without a bunch of extra cameras or sensors — which would be a compete non-starter for mass adoption of an HMD — it is near-impossible to track the user’s legs in 3D space. A more patient and thoughtful company would’ve side-stepped the issue entirely, because it doesn’t matter in practice, but instead it was allowed to become a running joke.5For the record, I’m not at all convinced that Apple’s uncanny valley virtual avatars are the right answer, either. But I’m a lot more optimistic that smart people will find a way to make 3D avatars more convincing, than that they’ll find a way to let cameras strapped into your head see down and around your body and somehow map your legs in 3D space with no depth information. Or that we’ll ever live in a world in which anyone anywhere genuinely gives a damn about what you’re doing with your legs unless you’re either dancing, or you’re kicking them.
Something that is much more important than avatars with legs: whether technology facilitates human interaction, or tries to replace it, or worse, obviate it. One of the things that elevated the movie M3GAN above camp into genuine social satire is that it depicted a world where people were so impressed by the potential of tech that they ignored all of the obvious problems with it.
Even as an Apple fan, I thought some of the marketing images crossed that line. “They know how weird this looks, right? Tell me that they still get how this is unnerving.” But I also feel like so much of it is from a determination to stay on-brand as a lifestyle-facilitated-by-technology company instead of just a computer company; and the need to undo years of counter-programming from other companies who’ve released VR headsets and set people’s expectations for what VR is like.
I can’t see anyone wearing this thing while packing a suitcase, for instance, but the message is that it can be a personal communication device. I don’t see anyone wearing the $3500 version while cooking — although an AR-enabled recipe and cooking instruction app for a lower-cost version is a no-brainer — but the message is that you can do other stuff while wearing it, and you can communicate with other people in the room. Consumer-grade HMDs have so far always been like diving into a sensory deprivation tank, and that’s the main idea they need to counteract for this to ever get traction.
For what it’s worth: I don’t believe that making this a “real” AR device — i.e. applying a display on top of transparent glasses instead of using opaque video screens and cameras — would’ve helped with that. After all, headphones can be isolating. I’ve never had a conversation with someone wearing a glasses-mounted camera, but I know I would’ve noped out of such a conversation as quickly as possible, because that’s hell of creepy.
I think that one of the issues with Apple’s demo videos is that it’s difficult to convey the idea of being alone but not lonely. There’s nothing inherently weird about looking through old photos or video of family gatherings when you’re by yourself, for instance, but it’s become a familiar symbol of “sad about the past” almost as much as panning over to the fireplace means “they’re doin’ it.”
The more troubling aspect of that part of the presentation is the whole question of how the 3D video of the family gathering was made in the first place. We already know the problem of people using their phones to record things instead of being in the moment, and it’s much worse when you think of the photographer wearing an opaque headset projecting unsetting video of his eyes on the front. I think that’s the image that Apple’s eager to counteract — and to be honest, it’s kind of their own fault for making the iPhone ubiquitous in the first place — and to convey that wearing this thing does not mean cutting yourself off from other people or not being in the moment.
But personally, I think that a device like the Apple Vision is something you’d most often be using while you’re alone. I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, since that’s also true of my computer, my iPad, and my phone. They often facilitate social interaction, but they’re not inherently social experiences. Writing a blog post, for instance, is completely solitary but still helps fill my “social meter” in Sims terminology.
By that standard, maybe the uncanny-valleyness of the virtual avatar and the front-facing eyes are not bugs, but features? Maybe it’s good to have a reminder that the goal isn’t to perfectly recreate or replace real human interaction, because it will never be as good as the real thing.
I predict that the biggest use case for the Apple Vision, at least initially, will be the most solitary parts of their demo presentation — the guy working at his desk with multiple large virtual screens, and the people sitting on their couch watching TV shows or movies. It’s a huge screen replacement with a built-in computer, essentially a 120-inch-or-more iMac, with any number of additional monitors, all of which are also 3D-capable displays.
That’s a lot less ambitious than what I imagined back when I first saw my first demo of a VR headset. I’m as surprised as anyone to realize that I’d be more interested in 2D gaming in a 3D headset (even though if that’s mostly because I could remain seated comfortably). But it’s also a lot more practical goal, and, I think, a lot more optimistic. If you concentrate solely on the escapist nature of VR and AR, you’re emphasizing the idea that the everyday world is something you need to escape.
- 1I have no doubt that there were a tiresome number of ride-or-die Apple fans gasping at the wonders on display, but I feel like it’s a lot easier to just shrug and let them have their thing.
- 2In a controlled demo environment, of course
- 3I ask that everyone take that as an indication of how quickly display technology has improved, not as an indication of how gullible and easily-impressed I am.
- 4In other words: there have always been people complaining about the “walled garden,” but they always focused on principle instead of practicality. I want my primary and essential communication device to be safe from malware, even if it means I lose some control over what I can put on it.
- 5For the record, I’m not at all convinced that Apple’s uncanny valley virtual avatars are the right answer, either. But I’m a lot more optimistic that smart people will find a way to make 3D avatars more convincing, than that they’ll find a way to let cameras strapped into your head see down and around your body and somehow map your legs in 3D space with no depth information. Or that we’ll ever live in a world in which anyone anywhere genuinely gives a damn about what you’re doing with your legs unless you’re either dancing, or you’re kicking them.