Jun 12 2023

Will Apple’s Vision Pro Change Anything?

For the first time in over a decade, Apple has announced a new product designed to change computing. There was the transition to personal computing with the Apple computer, then to portable computing with the iPhone, and now they hope to usher in the transition to virtual computing with their Vision Pro. It may be emblematic of the response to their announcement that Apple stock prices dropped during the announcement.

My personal response is mixed. Since I am now in the “futurism” space (I dislike that phrase, but not sure how else to put it) after the publication of my second book, I do tend to follow technology news quite closely. I’m especially interested in how people interact with new technology, and what that tells us about the future of technology. The Vision Pro is an excellent test case, and I think reflects many of the basic principles of futurism when it comes to thinking about future technology.

The product is being presented as a mixed reality application – usable for both virtual reality (VR) in which one’s visual experience is entirely immersed in the virtual world, and augmented reality (AR), in which you can still see the real world around you but digital content is overlayed on the real world. When evaluating any new tech we need to consider three basic types of analysis – how good is the hardware, how will it be used, and is it practical. By all accounts, Apple has definitely made a huge leap in the VR/AR hardware. Their device looks like ski goggles, and has impressive specs. It can run for two hours on battery, which you would wear on your waist, but can also be plugged in if your are sitting at your desk. It has 23 million pixels in each eye, greater than 4k resolution, eye tracking, and surround sound. There are no firm numbers on field of view, but speculation is that it will be a standard 110 degrees, which for me is very disappointing. It would be nice to bump that up even a little.

So by all accounts this would be an excellent VR headset, if nothing else. But in addition it has multiple cameras with which it can view the world and include that feed into what you see, creating an AR experience. The opacity of the digital world can be dialed anywhere from 0 to 100 percent. Also there are no controllers like with standard VR. You simply move your hands to manipulate objects in the virtual world, and also can interact with objects by just looking at them. So again, at the very least, this appears to be a great VR headset.

But this brings us to the practicality – it will cost $3,499. Meanwhile I can get a good VR headset for about $500, and if I want to go high end can splurge on $800 or so. I am an active VR user, one of the few who still use the tech even after the wow factor has faded. I used it exclusively for gaming. I have been following VR technology essentially waiting for a product that is improved enough over my current rig to justify the expense. So far there have been what I consider to be only small incremental advances not worth the investment. As a replacement VR headset, the advances in the Vision Pro are enough for me to want to upgrade – but at $3,499? Clearly this product is being aimed at wealthy early adopters, which is fine. I will have to wait with everyone else until the product gets into the prosumer range of sub 2k, or the consumer range of sub 1k.

Unless – there is something dramatic about the first consideration, how will this technology be used? As a VR headset, it appears awesome, but overpriced. But Apple is pushing this device as much more than a VR headset. They want this to be how you interact with your computing devices, how you consume entertainment, and perhaps new AR applications (things pure VR headsets cannot do). There is a lot of potential for AR games that I feel are untapped, and if developers come up with some killer AR games it could make a difference to the success of the Vision Pro.

What about as a virtual desktop? This application of VR technology has so far failed, despite specific efforts to develop such applications. The primary problem is that current VR headsets are too clunky to wear all day, or even for more than an hour or two at a time. There simply is not enough of an advantage over having a nice large computer monitor to justify the transition. In addition, behind the VR goggles you are locked away from the real world. This may be fine if you are alone in your home office, but not for many work spaces. Bottom line – people didn’t like it. Will the Vision Pro change that? That is a massive question to the potential success of this product.

The headset is lighter and more comfortable, and the AR mode does allow for simultaneous interaction with the real world and virtual world. For some applications, this may be ideal. I can see surgeons using this to overlay MRI images on a patient they are operating on, or mechanics visualizing the technical details of a machine they are trying to fix. But these are niche applications. With everyday office workers use it? I’m not convinced.

I can see potential here to transform the Zoom meeting. We all experienced during the pandemic the limitations of virtual meetings. If these were moved to the AR/VR space, where interaction is more immersive and realistic, that could be a potential application. I can see large corporations have a dozen or so headsets in a meeting room where they can then interact virtually with with people around the world as if they are in the room, for example. But again, this  is an application for wealthy companies and people, not everyone.

What about entertainment? What will the experience be like of watching a movie with these goggles, rather than on your big screen 4k TV? This may depend on content. Will big studios (like Disney, who is chummy with Apple) come out with content that leverages the 3D immersive aspects of the Vision Pro? Can I watch Star Wars and feel like I am sitting on the Millennium Falcon with Han and Chewie? Will this then become a “must have” entertainment device? I have experienced virtual 3d movies, just short demos, but it was an interesting experience. I can see that it has potential, but no one is really developing this content.

This is why, however, Apple announced the product 6 months prior to release (in January 2024). They want to give developers time to create these killer apps and must-see content. Will they?

The Vision Pro is an interesting test case. There are lots of variables, and you can make an argument either way. The device may become a must-have toy for tech enthusiasts, gamers, and movie fans – oh yes, and you can use it for work. Right. It may be that all of these things together is just enough to make it worth the high price tag, but I don’t think so. I think such an expense requires a killer app, that one thing you absolutely must have. Unless developers come out with incredible content over the next six months, I think the launch is likely to be a bit of a flop. Then the question is – how willing is Apple to limp along until the tech matures, the price can come down, and the content takes off. There is always a bit of chicken and egg problem here – people won’t buy the device until there is content, and content developers won’t invest the effort until enough people have the device. Bootstrapping all this requires investment and patience.

It also might be that the technology is just not there yet. We are a lot closer, it seems, with the Vision Pro, but did it get passed that fuzzy threshold of exponential consumer demand? At some point I think AR/VR devices will be small, light, cheap, and powerful enough that they will become the next smartphone. But what happens until then.

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