Editor’s Note: Rizwan Virk founded Play Labs @ MIT and is the author of “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics Agree We Are in a Video Game.”
He is currently at Arizona State University’s College of Global Futures. Follow him on Twitter @rizstanford and on the web at zenentrepreneur.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It’s not surprising that Apple’s debut Monday of its $3,499 Vision Pro headset integrating virtual and augmented reality was greeted with mixed reactions, including skepticism, criticism and even lampooning. Each previous incarnation of a headset that immerses the wearer in a virtual world (called virtual reality, or VR) or lets wearers see their surroundings with virtual objects overlaid on them (augmented reality, or AR) started with overhyped expectations only to flame out.
But in this case the negativity is premature. Apple’s new device could very well break this boom-and-bust cycle to become a new type of computing platform, one as revolutionary as the Macintosh was in 1984 or the iPhone in 2007.
You could be excused for thinking Vision Pro is a prop from a science fiction film sure to disappoint in real life, something that aspires to the lightweight sunglasses that “Westworld” characters use to communicate with augmented full-body holograms of far-away colleagues, or the augmented screens and gloves Tom Cruise’s police chief uses to sift through volumes of data to find potential criminals in “Minority Report.”
As such, it would be reasonable to figure that Apple’s Vision Pro will follow the same overhyped path as Facebook did when it changed its name to Meta in 2021. It wanted to become a leader in building the immersive online world of the Metaverse, itself a science fiction concept governing peoples’ lives depicted in movies such as “Ready Player One.” Half a year and a few billion dollars later, pundits were declaring Mark Zuckerberg’s vision to be dead as the clunky headsets and other product shortcomings underwhelmed consumers.
That chapter was a sad sequel to previous disappointments that failed to gain significant traction: 2014’s much-hyped and then maligned Google Glass, one of the earliest augmented reality glasses, followed by the much-ballyhooed AR headsets Magic Leap and HoloLens (from Microsoft), as well as VR headsets from HTC, Samsung and Sony.
But Apple’s headset (which it calls a spatial computer) has the potential to herald a new era of wearable “ubiquitous computing,” a somewhat fuzzy term conveying that computers will become small and be everywhere, ridding us of the need for dedicated computing devices and accessories like keyboards and monitors.
In fact, a wearable computing platform that is always with you and can create displays of any size in real time could eventually replace desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones; those are all unnecessary if you can have any number of high-resolution screens floating in the air around you and a virtual keyboard that responds to your hand and eye movements, the main control mechanism of Apple’s Vision Pro.
While I haven’t personally used Apple’s headset yet, I ran a VR/AR incubator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the last hype cycle and saw both the promise and perils of the technology. I am also doing my doctoral research on the history of virtual and augmented reality (known together as “extended reality”). I see many reasons why Apple may succeed in reaching mass adoption where others have spectacularly failed to do so.
I’m not alone. Cathy Hackl, former enterprise strategist at Magic Leap, told me on Monday, “What you saw unveiled today is the most advanced tech product ever created, it’s a super computer on your face.” Those who have used the product have already declared Apple’s headset the best product in this market, and according to CNN’s Samantha Kelly, “it felt like I’d seen the future — or at least an early and very pricey prototype of it.”
It’s important to remember that Apple’s historical success has often relied not on being first with a technology, but on providing the best iteration on it — as it did with both MP3 players (the iPod) and smartphones (the iPhone).
In this case, Apple has already doubled the capabilities of most “extended reality” headsets by allowing users to transition easily from VR to AR mode — and improved the user experience, resolution and capabilities of both. VR-only headsets have until now basically isolated the wearer from their environment and were even mocked for causing users to bump into objects around them. Meanwhile, AR headsets were bulky and lacked enough applications to make them useful to consumers.
Now, though, Apple will soon undoubtedly usher in many more novel ways of using this technology. With the iPhone’s App Store, for instance, tens of thousands of third-party developers created over a million apps for consumers, which solidified the iPhone’s role not just as a mobile phone, but a mobile computing platform. These apps will be available to Vision Pro users as well.
Much of the iPhone app store’s billions of dollars of revenue was driven by mobile video games, an industry that during the pandemic eclipsed sports and movies combined. VR gaming, along with virtual fitness and corporate training, has been among the few bright spots for the fledgling technology, but until now, VR users’ isolation from other people in the same room capped its potential.
But Apple is ushering in more than better VR simulation. Content from Disney, whose CEO Bob Iger appeared alongside Apple CEO Tim Cook at the product launch this week, will be available when Vision Pro is released next year. The ability to project large virtual 3D screens onto the room around you complete with spatial audio, which simulates sound coming from anywhere in your environment, could eventually make obsolete not only trips to the movie theater, but also wall-mounted TVs. CNN’s Kelly described watching “Avatar 2” on the Vision Pro as “surreal, seemingly placing me right in the ocean with these fictional creatures.”
While Vision Pro’s $3,499 price is admittedly too high for most consumers, Apple has often succeeded by launching new products as high-end status symbols before bringing them down to mass consumer price points. The first Macintosh was $7,299 in today’s inflated dollars, a turnoff despite its eye-popping graphical user interface that was a generation ahead of the text-based MS-DOS PCs of the time. And most businesses preferred to give their employees cheaper, dumber phones than the iPhone, but we all know how that turned out.
Apple is also likely to soon solve the problems of size, weight and comfort that have plagued VR headsets ever since Harvard professor Ivan Sutherland created the first computer controlled one in 1968, which was so heavy and cumbersome it was jokingly called the “Sword of Damocles.” Apple has shown us it can make users swoon from its combination of functionality and miniaturization (a phenomenon mocked by a “Saturday Night Live” skit on the ever-shrinking “iPod micro”).
Get our free weekly newsletter
While the first version of Vision Pro will undoubtedly have kinks that need to be worked out, like a short-lived battery with an unwieldy wire, we should remember that the first Mac was also very limited and wasn’t initially a financial success. Yet its user-friendly interface laid the foundation for a new way of computing, just as the iPhone did a generation later.
When “Good Morning America” asked Cook what he thought the biggest surprise about the new product would be, he replied: “probably the magnitude of what it does. It’ll do anything your Mac or iPhone can do — and more.”
And that’s why I believe that over time Apple’s Vision Pro will actually make science fiction scenarios of ubiquitous computing a reality. While the first version won’t be as compact as the glasses in “Westworld” or “Ready Player One,” it won’t be long before you’ll be able to place large screens all around you and manipulate what’s in them, a la “Minority Report.” Unlike Tom Cruise, you won’t even need gloves.