Fri Jun 30, 2023
It’s the year 2063 and you’re not as spry as you used to be. You’re getting tired of listlessly gazing at the bio-engineered animatronic budgie in its cage, chirping loudly at every passing grey-haired resident in the care home. So, you decide to lie down for a bit.
Shuffling past the rec room, you shake your head. The rec-room holo-TV is playing an excruciatingly bad violin concerto on an infinite loop. A few drooling watchers rock back and forth in their wheelchairs as they stare with dull eyes at a 3D hologram of an energetic violinist.
As you approach your room - which you share with Bob - you hear loud voices. Looks like Bob’s family is visiting from Texas. Damn, you were hoping for some piece and quiet. No matter - you’ll soon erase them from reality.
You lie down and your bed automatically adjusts its memory-foam frame to cradle you so that it feels like you’re floating on air. You smile as think about your dear granddaughter, Ellie. She recently gifted you with a new Apple Vision Pro 40. All you have to do is tap your hearing aid to start it up.
Having already installed the ocular implants, all you need to do is sit back while the care home around you fades away. An instant later, you’ve been transported to a beautiful mountain vista. You’re sitting on the deck of your virtual cabin, sipping a coffee. Your olfactory sensory-neuron implants replace the smell of Bob’s diaper with the aroma of the rich, steaming brew.
Thinking back to WWDC 2023, you chuckle at the debut of the primitive AR headset forty years ago. If only Tim Cook had been more confident in his vision back then. As you recall, he even refused to wear it for photos. Maybe you’ll ask him about it when you chat with his AI alter ego later.
For now though, you feel like participating in Avatar 26 - Paradise in Pandora, an immersive experience where you get to actually be a Na’vi and interact with the actors in the movie. Your banshee is waiting.
You know, retirement isn’t so bad with the Apple Vision Pro 40. Too bad it took so long for Apple to make it this good.
This specific scenario, involving somebody with mobility issues or physical disabilities in an unpleasant environment, seems the perfect use case for virtual reality. If I’m ever put in an old age home, I hope that I can escape to Pandora.
Other suitable use cases include:
- Incarceration (Although highly unlikely the penal system would provide VR headsets to inmates).
- Being trapped in a metal coffin hurtling at 900 km/h over the Atlantic (Especially if you want to watch Quentin Tarantino movies when you’re sitting next to children).
- Escaping your shitty studio apartment with no TV and a window view of a brick wall (Maybe reconsider your move to New York).
- Working as a mechanical engineer who needs to create 3D models (VR not being applicable to any other profession on planet Earth).
As you can see, I’m reaching for use cases here, which isn’t surprising since VR has been around since The Lawnmower Man in 1992 and thirty years later is still a niche market segment for socially-awkward nerds. All these use cases apply to the VR market category in general, not just Apple’s shiny new headset. Apple’s problem is, therefore, the exact same problem all other VR headsets are facing: how to grow the VR market to the point of mass adoption.
Interestingly, with the Vision Pro, Apple is trying to dissociate themselves from the VR market entirely. Not once did they mention the words “Virtual Reality”, “Artificial Intelligence”, or “Metaverse”. Especially not the Zuckerberg-tainted “Metaverse”.
Instead, they talked about “spatial computing”, which is more Minority Report than Ready Player One from what I can gather.
They also want people to walk around in public taking 3D photographs. No joke. In what Jason Snell rightly calls a “rare marketing misstep”, Apple depicted a dad wearing the headset take pictures at his daughter’s birthday party. I think that anyone who sees this fake dad will have the same reaction - hell no.
Perhaps this scenario wouldn’t seem so dystopian if the hardware was more invisible and looked like regular glasses. But expecting people to socialize with bulky, overengineered ski goggles strapped to their head is a hard, hard sell. And, from what I’ve seen, the creepy video feed of your eyes displayed on the front makes it worse, not better. Nilay Patel’s take on this is spot on. In an episode of The Vergecast, he said that “the Vision Pro is not the thing Apple wants to build; it is a simulator for the thing Apple wants to build”.
Apple’s strategy here is to play the long game - perhaps the longest game they have ever played. I’m sure they don’t expect mass adoption of the Vision Pro in the next decade. But the decade after that? Perhaps. Nothing, however, is certain. The difference between Apple and the other guys is the size of Apple’s bank account. If the Vision Pro flops, it won’t drag Apple under. They can afford to both take a risk - and to be patient.
But here’s the thing: Apple is really good at failing. Sometimes, they’ll pull the plug on a product with no future. But if there is even a shred of potential, they just won’t quit. They’ll learn, adapt, and try again and again until they get it right. With first-generation hardware this good - and the hardware is very good, make no mistake - obscene amounts of time and money may just brute force the Vision Pro into a compelling product the average consumer would buy. For now, the Vision Pro is just that - a vision of the future aimed at professional developers.
The Apple Vision Pro is coming sometime in 2024 - and only to the US. It seems like a theme this year, Google passed over Canada with their AI-infused software and now Apple is giving Canada a skip with their futuristic new hardware. I guess Americans just assume Canadians spend all their time in the great outdoors, fishing on a lake somewhere, or sitting around in igloos with plaid shirts on - no technology in sight. Tim, there are a lot of developers in Canada too, FYI.
When it arrives next year, the Vision Pro will be extremely expensive, as in almost $4,000 USD expensive. That price reflects how good the hardware is. The high price tag is also Apple’s not-so subtle way of saying that that this is not a consumer product, it is a developer beta. By announcing the headset at WWDC, Apple are trying to woo developer geeks with deep pockets, hoping that they’ll start developing software for it.
However, when taking a critical look at the current technology landscape, it seems to me that the perfect fusion between hardware and software has not yet arrived to usurp the smartphone’s throne.
On one hand, AI is incredible software that does not have any viable hardware to house it (and whether we should give AI an android body is debatable).
On the other hand, high-end VR/AR headsets, as exemplified in the sensor-stacked hardware of the Vision Pro, offer fantastic hardware in search of game-changing software. For now, Apple is steering clear of AI. This decision may be what ultimately holds the Vision Pro back.
I’ve long believed that VR and AI may mature on their own separate paths, but when a highly-advanced iteration of VR becomes the ultimate interface for advanced AI, then we’ll have created The Matrix. I wrote a post about this idea eight years ago. Not much has changed since then.
Let’s see what happens a decade from now. If VR and AI are fully integrated, then I’ll take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. If not, then I’ll take the blue pill and have this conversation again. You probably won’t even remember that we’ve talked about this before.