One Hundred Twenty-Eight Gigabytes of Solitude

I TOLD you not to bother me while I’m jacked into the Matrix! (Thoughts about isolation and VR headsets)

As a chronicler of the hottest tech trends and their impact on our society, I have to warn you that Apple has released a device that threatens to rip apart our social fabric as we know it, forcing humans to keep their eyes locked on screens instead of engaging in meaningful contact. They did this in 2007, and it was called the iPhone.

I was initially pleased to see that reaction to Apple’s Vision Pro wasn’t just concentrating on technical specs and feature comparisons, and instead seemed to have more high-minded thoughts about the social impact of technology, the future of computing platforms, etc.

But I’d been optimistically assuming that those conversations would be based on a realistic look at the technology we have today, and how we use it. Not on some late-1990s screenwriter’s notion of jacking into cyberspace.

I’m not objecting to the notion that technology is isolating. I just object to the claim that the problem is somehow unique to a head-mounted display, or that it’s significantly more ominous than what we’ve got now, or what we’ve had forever. It’s a social problem, not (strictly) a technology one.

Yes, I’ve seen kids with their attention fixated on an iPad screen, oblivious to everything around them. I’ve seen (and been a part of) groups of people sitting staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.1Or worse, when the person you’re with is having a much more animated and enjoyable conversation with someone on their phone instead of you. I’ve seen people walking around with Air Pods or over-ear headphones, cut off from everyone. I’ve been through the awkwardness of a stranger coming up to me and talking, and I respond before I notice that they’re talking to me instead of insisting on having a conversation with someone over their earphones, in public, for some reason.2Like an absolute asshole.

But I’ve seen people at the breakfast table reading newspapers instead of talking. I’ve been in the room with people who’ve got their nose in a book, oblivious to everyone around them. These are things that predate small electronics, and I’m skeptical that they’ll be solved by anything other than etiquette and social awareness.3Considering how many times I’ve had to hear tinny audio blasting from someone else’s phone while I’m standing in a line — one of my biggest pet peeves — it’s probably optimistic to expect either.

That said, it’s remarkable how much technology that Apple has crammed into the headset and OS specifically to head off concerns about isolation and loss of engagement. The passthrough is the most significant — again, you don’t start out in a black void or an immersive VR environment; you start out in your room. But so many of the most notable, and even controversial aspects of it are the results of Apple’s insistence that this device should not feel isolating.

And a lot of them are being mocked — deservedly, in some cases — or dismissed as irrelevant. I can’t get the “persona” to work for me4The recent developer beta improved the process enough that I could actually get it to finish, but the results weren’t so much hilariously creepy as just plain rude. It makes me look like I’m in my 80s, instead of the reality, which is that I’m in my 50s but look like I’m in my late 60s. I actually think it saw my white beard and eye bags and just automatically added age spots that I don’t have., and the “EyeSight” feature that was so creepy in the initial announcement has been made so dim and recessed that it just feels unnecessary. But the outward-facing screen itself, which has often been called out as the most obvious thing that will be cut in future versions, is crucial to how Apple wants to position this. It’s a statement from the designers that it’s essential for other people to have an idea of what you’re doing and whether you can see them. Is it sufficient? Not currently, but I think it’s most important as a commitment to what the designers feel is important to preserve.

Some of the claims that I’ve seen — including from people who should know better — are just false. You can show other people what you’re looking at5As long as it’s not copyrighted content. Welcome to the 21st century, tech bloggers; glad you could join the rest of us in only discovering this now. just by sharing the display with any AirPlay-compatible device.6Including my Google-powered Sony television, so it’s not as if you have to be completely entrenched in Apple to be able to use it. (Although to be clear: I think anyone who’s not completely entrenched in Apple has next to zero reason to get a Vision Pro in its current incarnation). It’s got plenty of room for improvement; for instance, my friend Jake pointed out what Valve is doing to reduce some of the unnecessary motion when translating a head-mounted camera to a 2D screen.

There are, absolutely, moments of I really want you to see this! And for that, there’s a Guest Mode that’s far from perfect — and Apple seriously, absolutely needs to implement multiple user accounts on the Vision Pro, far more than on the iPad — but is more seamless than I’ve seen on any other VR headset.7As always, the caveat is I haven’t yet used the Quest 3.

My larger question, though, is what exactly is the social interaction that’s supposedly missing here? Are groups of people huddling around iPad screens? Is using your iPhone somehow a more social experience? The only times I show my phone screen to someone else is when I see a meme, I hold it in front of them until they laugh, and then we both go about our business. Are these the precious moments forever lost to the unfeeling dreadnaught of technology? Because unless there’s something I’m missing, I feel like humanity can survive.

But I still think that the most significant thing Apple has done with the Vision Pro — and ironically, the thing that most concerned me when I discovered it wasn’t designed for room scale VR — is in that first 15 or so seconds when you put on the headset. You’re not in a black void, or even a tastefully modern living room overlooking a futuristic city, but in your room. And to start using it, you just look at stuff and pinch your fingers together.

I’m used to thinking of “the first 15 seconds” (or “first five minutes” in EA’s case) as a pejorative, a sign that a company is more concerned about first impressions than in the long-term experience, interested only in having enough engagement to keep customers occupied through the window when they can return the product.

But with the Vision Pro, the first 15 seconds are something you’re going to repeat over and over and over again. It’s like the promo video from one of the Apple Events, showing Craig Federighi looking lovingly at a MacBook screen as he opened it and it booted within seconds. Self-aware that it’s a seemingly silly thing to fixate on, but still important enough to put it on the feature list. It makes a huge difference in how quickly and seamlessly you can mode-switch between one thing and another. It means that I can put on the headset and be doing stuff within a few seconds. This is the first VR headset I’ve used where the mode-switch is almost as seamless as using over-ear headphones.

And when talking about social isolation, it means that I don’t need to have a conversation with someone looking at a creepy simulacrum of my weird-looking eyes, but that if someone comes in and wants to talk to me, I can just take the damn thing off. Almost as quickly as I can stop looking at my phone. I don’t have to be much more concerned about the distinction between “out here” and “in there,” to turn The Verge’s phrase against them, any more than when I’m wearing headphones, or in the middle of reading an article.

But then, I might just not be in the target audience for a conversation about what’s important in regards to human social interaction, since I seriously could not give a rat’s ass whether a VR headset messes up my hair.

  • 1
    Or worse, when the person you’re with is having a much more animated and enjoyable conversation with someone on their phone instead of you.
  • 2
    Like an absolute asshole.
  • 3
    Considering how many times I’ve had to hear tinny audio blasting from someone else’s phone while I’m standing in a line — one of my biggest pet peeves — it’s probably optimistic to expect either.
  • 4
    The recent developer beta improved the process enough that I could actually get it to finish, but the results weren’t so much hilariously creepy as just plain rude. It makes me look like I’m in my 80s, instead of the reality, which is that I’m in my 50s but look like I’m in my late 60s. I actually think it saw my white beard and eye bags and just automatically added age spots that I don’t have.
  • 5
    As long as it’s not copyrighted content. Welcome to the 21st century, tech bloggers; glad you could join the rest of us in only discovering this now.
  • 6
    Including my Google-powered Sony television, so it’s not as if you have to be completely entrenched in Apple to be able to use it. (Although to be clear: I think anyone who’s not completely entrenched in Apple has next to zero reason to get a Vision Pro in its current incarnation).
  • 7
    As always, the caveat is I haven’t yet used the Quest 3.

2 thoughts on “One Hundred Twenty-Eight Gigabytes of Solitude”

  1. Clearly you need to be able to just display memes directly in the Eyesight screen. So you can walk up to someone and MEMEFACE.

    1. The expression of someone staring at the front screen and trying but failing to read the meme is probably the same expression I get most of the time I tell somebody a joke.

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