I don’t think it’s too over-the-top to suggest that Apple has jumped the shark. I am actually, genuinely disappointed that they’ve attempted to dive into the same murky waters of VR that sank Meta a few months ago, albeit from a different shoreline.
The world of Virtual Reality (VR) has been around since the late 1980s, at least in a “real” sense (that is, computers capable of generating some form of reality), and a lot longer before that in fiction. And while the terminology and definitions will vary (sometimes wildly) between source, I think you can summarize the intent of VR as:
A simulated environment that occupies some or all of an individual’s senses to introduce, enhance, or supplant their experience of a world, allowing (limited) interaction with that environment and the elements within it.
In short, by using VR (or AR, augmented reality), you should be able to “walk” into a simulation in which you can do something. Fairly straight-forward, I think, and is the real separation between a VR experience, and a fancy movie.
Thanks to the media over the last few years, we have taken VR to be is a representation of the metaverse (and we all know what I think of the metaverse), and that’s not really a great definition – VR is not the metaverse, the metaverse is accessible (and more enhanced) through VR. Just so that we’re getting that out of the way. VR can be used for a great number of things that have nothing to do with floating torsos sitting in Animal Crossing-style rooms.
For example, the Microsoft HoloLens, which appears to be Apple Vision Pro’s primary target/competition. Microsoft, several years already ahead on this, has positioned HoloLens not as a fun tool, but for serious things, like virtual walk-throughs of construction environments, or (my personal favourite) as a method of pre-training surgical students before they make their first cuts and promptly pass out. It’s big, bulky, annoying to wear, and is clearly a tool, not a toy.
My problem with Apple’s Vision Pro is that it’s being positioned like an iPad – it’s a must-have for the home to read webpages or watch a movie. I’m having a really hard time with not losing my shit over this. Especially when you look at the fact that this is an overly-bulky (and very expensive) set of snow goggles that runs visionOS (which my co-worker, Mark, aptly pointed out was a missed opportunity to call this eyeOS) and is positioned to … um … [checks notes] … actually, I’m not sure.
The extreme cynic in me says this was done solely to make Steve Jobs spin even faster in his grave, positioned under the Apple Park, where he’s no doubt hooked up to a generator so they can save on electrical bills. Because there’s no way Jobs would have released something like this under his watch.
Jobs was famous for making something a real experience. He famously threw a prototype of the iPod into a fish tank to prove it wasn’t small enough. I can’t, for a moment, believe that he would have ushered the Vision Pro into the world without having absolutely nailed the experience of having one.
Because if the experience is as Apple suggests … um … well, how is it any different than using an iPad that you don’t physically touch? Sure, there’s neat wrap-around googles, but so far, there’s nothing in there that would be “game changing” – no special app, no unique offering. All I can really say about them is that the don’t look as awful as previous AR sets. Even in the promo video, they tout that the goggles provide environmental awareness – you can see what’s going on around you unobstrusively, in case your family or friend needs to come talk to you.
But as anyone over the last three years can testify, the sight of anyone even wearing headphones puts immediate pause to conversation of any kind. A pair of goggles?? Yeah, no, that’s an outright blocker.
Which leads me to “why”: why would Apple spend so much time and money to release something this expensive and without a market demand? Yes, the original iPod wasn’t cheap, but the market was there; same with the iPhone. Sure, there’s VR/AR headsets now (such as the Oculus and Sony Playstation, and of course the aforementioned HoloLens), but these are of limited and/or niche use, and the majority of that is gaming.
I’ve seen a couple of articles about how this is a revolution in UI, allowing people to use computers in a new, different way with fewer input devices. This is a key difference with the Vision Pro, which has cameras to track eye movement and watch for hand motions. This is more of the “computer of the future” that we’ve seen for so many years on countless sci-fi movies and shows.
And that’s great, for sure, it’s wonderful that the paradigm is being pushed and we’ll see … um … greater engagement with devices that will block us from real-world human interaction. Sorry, dark moment there as I tried to actually understand the benefit.
Yes, it’s always good to improve UI. It’s always better to have strong experiences. But I struggle, still, to understand the problem its trying to solve. This isn’t an ability solution – anyone with ability issues, such as moving hands, will still struggle. The eye tracking is an improvement, for sure, but wearing full goggles seems a step back for people who are already struggling.
Never mind that cord tethered to an “oversized iPhone” battery pack that you have to tuck in, somewhere. Honestly, it feels like an afterthought, though I totally recognize it was to reduce the weight of the goggles.
Google Glass, in its visionary (yes, pun intended) release had users wear a pair of glasses so they could see what the Glass applications were doing. To be clear, this not obstructive – a bit weird-looking with the large module on one side – but it didn’t block anyone out, because they looked like glasses, not goggles. Don’t wear glasses? So what, you wear sunglasses, right? This is an existing paradigm, and it’s a true shame that Google didn’t try to advance this further as a proper AR solution.
But. Despite all my above negativity and general disbelief … I can’t help but think that Apple’s got “one more thing” they haven’t told us about yet.
Here’s the rub: Apple tends not to made duds. Low-volume items, yes, and some products that have been treated too much like hobbyist experiments, but by and large, their product sets are successful. For them to introduce a future failure with such fanfare is … well, inconceivable.
They’re releasing the Vision Pro without much support. Such was the original iPhone, there wasn’t even an App Store. Today, many of us couldn’t be caught dead without our phones, causing outright panic if we misplace them. There were many “one more thing” moments as the iPhone became more and more capable.
I wonder if the “one more thing” is still to come. This theory is still a bit negative, but it’s a theory to fit the facts: a released product missing the “gotta have it” feature. Which means that Apple’s VR/AR service is yet to come.
Apple is notoriously secretive. They can do all kinds of fun things in absolute darkness and drop things with little-to-no warning. The Jobs era was replete with this sort of thing. And perhaps they’re lifting a page from their past, sitting on a service that’s not yet ready, get the hardware out and get people starting to use it – and get the usage data and work out the kinks – before launching a service that might blow our minds because they’ve worked out the kinks.
What would that be? Interactive gaming is an obvious one, but I’m thinking it’s going to be more immersive than that. There’s rumours of a Disney app, so my thoughts lean towards a Virtual Disney World … which, if that’s the case, it’ll be about as pricey for a family of 4 to get a set of Vision Pros as it is to visit Disney World for a week. And you can probably go back as often as you want, no lines, no overpriced food, and the weather will always be perfect.
A single app will not make the platform, however. There has to be more to it than that. I’m thinking something Music-related, such as live concerts, using 360 cameras that feed to your Vision Pro, complete with the 360 sound. Or possibly full-depth movies – such as Avatar: Way of the Water – where you can be wholly immersive in what’s going on. It’s going to need serious experiences like this, not virtual meeting rooms, that will truly capture the market.
Now to see if Apple does truly have something up its sleeve…