Infinite Blank Canvas

Yet another episode in my ongoing struggles to make sense of the Vision Pro (and make sense of why I want one)

I wish I could be one of those people who could embrace being an early adopter, be grateful to be in a position to be able to even consider spending money on consumer tech, and be done with it.1Also known in some circles as “a functioning adult.”

But I’ve been plagued with indecision about the Vision Pro headset, kind of hoping that the demand would outstrip supply to the point the decision is made for me, or grateful that I can’t just make an impulse purchase without first scheduling a long-overdue appointment with an optometrist.

I’ve even been harboring a pretzel-twist of logic to think of it as being like a ticket to the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser that I never booked: the people who were able to go saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance2Even though every one I know of who went on it ended up going more than once, somehow. Again I suspect I picked the wrong career by not going into YouTube. to be in at the start of something that felt huge and revolutionary. Except this is even more suited to me, because I wouldn’t have to talk to strangers.

The obvious question with the Vision Pro is one that I touched on in another blog post: What does it do? The utility and longevity of it are far from certain. That’s why there’ve been complaints that it’s essentially a dev kit being marketed as a consumer device. And the more sensible and rational take, which is to wait for the inevitable future version that will be faster, lighter, more capable, and have a better-defined (if not completely-defined) use case.

This morning I listened to an episode of the Upgrade podcast that addressed that whole question of whether this is a glorified developer kit. In it, Jason Snell described the same feeling that I’ve had about it, but have never been able to articulate. Apparently I just needed to hear from another nerd around my age, because he compared it to the early adoption of personal computers in the mid-1980s.

They were usually exorbitantly priced — even my Commodore 64, which was the “entry level” computer for families who couldn’t justify an Apple or IBM-compatible computer, would be over $700 in 2024 dollars. And they had questionable utility; Snell mentions how recipe databases were often made out to be the “killer apps” for personal computers, mostly because there didn’t seem to be much else practical you could do with them. People didn’t buy them because they were immediately useful, but because they had long-term potential. (And I think it paid off in my case, since I’ve managed to spend most of my career as a programmer).

The featured image for this post is from a CNET post about Apple advertising, with an early print ad introducing the Macintosh. Back in the 1980s, I was completely enamored by the whole mystique they’d built around the Mac. I’d buy the magazines and look through the screenshots in MacWorld and MacUser like teenage girls looked through Tiger Beat. The day my parents got me one as a graduation present (which had to be a huge sacrifice that teenage me did not fully understand) is still one of my most treasured core memories. There was such an aura around it. Even before I played Dark Castle.

It seemed to answer the question What does it do? with a somewhat vague, Well, what do you want it to do? One thing that Apple marketing has always been good at is realizing that the stuff you actually do on a computer is kind of dull, and the magic comes in making that stuff easier and even fun. I’m not claiming that that’s any rare insight; it’s basically the entire philosophy of the Mac. But it’s easy to forget, as computers have gotten so ubiquitous as to be practically inescapable. There’s no longer anything special about them, nothing inherently “delightful” about moving windows around or typing into documents or copying files from place to place.3Which I would do repeatedly on the Mac Plus, for no particular reason, giggling the whole time.

For me, at least4And I swear that in my head, this was going to be generalized observations about the tech industry, but it just turned into my stream of consciousness about a VR headset. Oops!, I think that helps explain why I’ve been wrestling with the whole idea: I’m in 2024 feeling nostalgic for the way I got excited about computers back in 1984.

When I tried the Vision Pro, it actually felt like I was seeing something new. I’d been thinking that it was new in terms of AR & VR, which immediately invited comparisons to the strengths and weaknesses of the devices I’ve seen before. (Which is probably why Apple is working so hard to distance themselves from that and into the realm of “it’s like an iPad, but 3D”). But I think it was actually most like when I first used a Mac. It’s just neat moving windows around and resizing them. I went to the control panel not for its utility, but because it was a new bunch of buttons to push and sliders to play with. Or in other words:

Even if you accept that being delightful is justification on its own, and even if you shift the question from What can it do? to What could it do?, there’s one big thing that’s not clear to me, and could limit its potential from the start. Ironically, it’s the last device that Apple put out which convinced me I was witnessing the birth of a whole new type of personal computer: the iPad.

Or at least, iOS and iPadOS.

One of the images that keeps showing up in Apple marketing is the ability to use the headset as a huge second display for your Mac. On first glance, that suggests that everything you can do on a Mac, you can do on this headset. (At least, that’s how I’d been thinking of it so far). But the reality seems to be that it’s just screen sharing. Still useful, but not as “magical” as, say, translating each window on your Mac desktop into a corresponding window in visionOS, and letting you position and manipulate them in 3D space. Everything I’ve seen so far suggests that the selection of apps you’ll be able to actually run on visionOS is going to be more iPad-like than Mac-like.

The most recurring thing that keeps the iPad from being the “magical” device that I’d initially imagined it being, is that Apple sets arbitrary restrictions on what you can do with it. In my case, it’s most often app development. I’ve been surprised by how many times I’ve run against this limitation, where I’d like to work on something, but didn’t want to lug my laptop around.

I’m definitely not in the camp of people who are still complaining about the “walled garden,” and Apple’s limitations on sideloading and third-party app stores and the like. I’d probably have more sympathy for it if it were all theoretical, but we’ve seen what it looks like when platforms are left wide open, and it’s pretty shitty. And I’ve seen complaints about inconsistent app store policies, or the terrible apps that still make it through the verification process while good ones are rejected, and they’re presented as if they’re proof that the whole concept is invalid. I say that they’re just a sign of how much worse it would be if there were no vetting process.

In any case, it still seems onerous to let me set up my iPad as a developer device, but still not let me develop on it. I kind of understand it, but I still hate it.

And that’s just one limitation. Even though I could get an iPad with a SOC as powerful as the on in my laptop, it still couldn’t ever replace my laptop. It looks like it’ll be the same case with visionOS — the limitations on which apps and which versions of apps that I can run will no longer be because of constrained screen space, or because it’s running on a mobile device, but simply because Apple says so.

On the other hand: Apple’s put a ton of state-of-the-art technology into this thing, with the best implementations of the basic AR experience (passthrough, eye tracking, gesture recognition, light estimation, etc) that I’ve ever seen. Plus there are a ton of interesting frameworks that I’d love to get the chance to play with. All of which suggests that they’re eager for people to build on the hardware and software they’ve made, and make some amazing stuff. (And then give them a cut of the sales and in-app purchases).

No matter how much I try to let reality take over, I can’t suppress the part of me that was so excited to sit down with a new computer and just start tinkering, even without a specific project in mind. Where even if I don’t make something amazing, I can still have fun just moving windows around.

  • 1
    Also known in some circles as “a functioning adult.”
  • 2
    Even though every one I know of who went on it ended up going more than once, somehow. Again I suspect I picked the wrong career by not going into YouTube.
  • 3
    Which I would do repeatedly on the Mac Plus, for no particular reason, giggling the whole time.
  • 4
    And I swear that in my head, this was going to be generalized observations about the tech industry, but it just turned into my stream of consciousness about a VR headset. Oops!