Apple’s announcement of the Vision Pro mixed reality headset at WWDC 2023 on Monday was an impressive affair in many ways, from the sleek design and obvious tech chops of the device itself to the high production values of the video. showing them. But perhaps the best performance of the evening was the presenters’ intricate dance to avoid the ghosts of past failures.
Because, as usual, Apple is not the first in this market. (At least in a broad sense. Vision Pro breaks new ground in detail.) Google tried to make augmented reality a thing in 2013 and finally scrapped its Glass project earlier this year. Facebook is desperately trying to make the metaverse a thing and has only succeeded in making its CEO a laughingstock. And while HTC, HP, and others are undoubtedly making money from VR headsets, none have yet entered the mainstream or built a compelling case that VR is a cool technology for people. cool people.
Apple is clearly aware of the story, and it’s striking how careful it has been to avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared previous competitors. The owners of Google Glass, for example, were insulted and sometimes physically attacked by passers-by who objected to being filmed without their consent, so Vision Pro presenters did their best to avoid the slightest hint of surveillance culture. . The Space Video feature was illustrated with a user in their own home filming happy, cooperative members of their own family (it’s weird, by the way, how inside
the whole demonstration was); it has been carefully pointed out that Vision Pro uses the outside screen to signal when a video is being shot, so you couldn’t do it secretly.
The message was simple: Vision Pro is healthy. No one would use it for illicit or sinister purposes. You can see the person’s eyes! Everything’s good.
At the other end of the scale are VR headsets designed for gamers. The VR game is a lot of fun, but it’s almost comically excluding; your loved ones will struggle to get your attention mid-session, and you hardly know which house you’re in when you stop. All the helmets I tried put me in a bubble and made it a virtue: the immersion is total, but it does not lend itself to contact with the outside. And that leads to stereotypes of lonely, isolated nerds and skepticism from the more tech-agnostic sections of the mainstream.
Targeting a relatively small demographic of hardcore gamers might work for small businesses, but Apple needs its headset, eventually, to appeal to almost everyone. He wants Vision Pro to take the iPhone’s place as the central platform, after all. The company therefore had to do everything possible to emphasize that This the helmet is different. This helmet does not isolate you in a solitary bubble. It’s designed to FaceTime with entire groups of smiling friends; it greets other people when you’re ready to engage by showing your eyes on the external display and detects them when they approach so it can blur the background. Most of the demos took place as part of sociable groups, and featured on the living room couch, not tucked away in a basement or bedroom. (Never mind that, for me at least, the most compelling use case was total isolation on a busy plane.)
Incidentally, this FaceTime demo was also striking in its deliberate distancing from the clunky and unattractive world of the Metaverse. Because Vision Pro covers your face, it is necessary for good communication that the system generates an artificial representation of your image. Yet visionOS avatars are much closer to photo realism than the legless caricature of Facebook’s metaverse. And while it’s presumably possible—perhaps even desirable—to have a video chat in a virtual environment, especially if all participants are using Vision Pro, the demo took place in a normal room. All we do, the presenters reassured us, is bring your friends and colleagues into your home. This is not some goofy cartoon chat room. We are not like that other business.
Learn from the mistakes of others
Vision Pro is more risky than most of Apple’s product launches because it’s aimed at a market whose value has yet to be proven. Will mixed reality really be the next big thing? The best most of us can offer is maybe. The smartphone will not dominate forever and will one day be supplanted by a new platform. But the smartphone’s qualities were evident from the start: it could be taken wherever you went, it fit unobtrusively into your life, and it was conceptually close enough to existing technology for newcomers to understand how it worked. Mixed reality doesn’t have any of these benefits, and the hardware isn’t very appealing yet. The headsets are bulky and heavy, the battery life is poor, and the control methods are completely different from what we’re used to.
Petter Ahrnstedt / Foundry
All of this means that Apple has a huge challenge ahead. It is not enough to convince customers that this specific product is good; He has to sell the whole concept of mixed reality. A lot of potential customers don’t know the technology, which is a problem. But a bigger problem is the fact that others are and don’t like what they saw. So before it can even sell, Apple needs to undo the PR damage caused by the companies that came before it.
The whole thing is a terrifying balancing act. We’re not as isolating as VR, but we’re not as intrusive as Glass. We want to talk about the potential of virtual interaction, but we don’t want to make you think of Mark Zuckerberg and the Metaverse. We mean this is a breakthrough product, without scaring customers away with too much change. And we want to sell a product concept that will likely hit its stride in generations while encouraging developers to get on board now to build momentum and create content.
Frankly, it’s amazing that the presentation went so well.