On the Apple Vision Pro and Progress Narratives
The Vision Pro might be the future of XR, but what is XR's role in the future?
It’s been almost two months since Apple announced its long-awaited Vision Pro headset. I’ve read the takes, I’ve talked to many different folks, including friends and colleagues who worked directly on the device. There’s so much to be excited by in the headset, but I can’t shake a gnawing sense of concern about it.
I remember when I first got started connecting with folks in the virtual reality (VR) community in 2014, I would encounter industry veterans who grouchily waved off the grandiose claims about VR during the phase of renewed interest following the Oculus kickstarter in 2012. They had been through too many headfakes to believe it was really happening this time—they’d heard it all before, they’d even made the same points about immersion as were being made now—and what had any of it amounted to? As someone new to the scene, it had a distinct “turd in the punchbowl” flavor; my intention is not to present as a kneejerk crank now.
That said, with nearly a decade of experience, I know much more about immersive technologies, and I too have developed stronger critical positions about how, why, and when we should be using them. I have more empathy for their position, but I also want to honor the excitement brewing around the Vision Pro. To that end, some quick groundwork:
Generally speaking I think the announcement of the Vision Pro is a Good Thing™ for the XR industry (inclusive here of virtual, augmented and mixed reality; spatial computing; adjacent technologies like haptics and smart devices; and the still-contested notion of the metaverse), to which I’ve dedicated nearly a decade of my attention and interest.
Apple has a proven track record of identifying the “right” time to enter (and “win”) a given market, and is a strong enough center of gravity that social practices have morphed around their products in the past (see: the social acceptability of walking around with AirPods in your ears).
Yes, the device is expensive enough to price out the vast majority of potential consumers worldwide. No, this is not that surprising. Yes, Apple has released equivalently costly items that succeeded in the past. Some people even think should be more expensive.
There is dissonance between how the device was marketed (fun entertainment and workplace applications!) and who it is for (developers and early adopters), at least until it comes down in cost or new models roll out that are more capable (or have similar capabilities at cheaper costs, a la iPhone SE). This type of delta between expectations created through marketing and actual product capabilities has dogged other big names in XR (see: Google Glass, Magic Leap whale, Meta’s “metaverse” offerings). In Apple’s case, that’s less a matter of using VFX to present impossible XR experiences and more a matter of having a robust enough content/app ecosystem and large enough user base to make the device desirable to all but a tight core of niche users and developers.
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My Concerns with Vision Pro
In the weeks since the announcement, two considerations have emerged as the primary sources of concern regarding the Vision Pro. One has to do with Apple’s messaging, which is then connected to a broader narrative that Apple fits within.