Will Apple's Vision Pro be the next iPhone?

Back in June of 2023, Apple announced its Vision Pro, which the Wikipedia article about it calls a "mixed reality" headset. This week, in some parts of the world, you can now buy your own Vision Pro — for $3,500. While this will not be an obstacle for wealthy early adopters, the rest of us will probably wait until the beta-version bugs are worked out and the price comes down. In the meantime, we can think about what this means for the future of humanity.

That sounds either presumptuous or silly, but there is no question that the advent of the smartphone has changed the course of world history, especially cultural, social, and political history. Combined with the AI-fueled algorithms that maximise profits for Facebook, X, and their ilk at the expense of rational political discourse, we have seen the smartphone severely damage democracy in the United States and other places. Yes, there are advantages to smartphones as well, but a serious debate over whether having them is a net gain or loss to society is one that we will probably never have, because they are here to stay.

That is not yet the case for the Vision Pro, so let's spend a little thought on imagining what life would be like if Vision Pro headsets or their upgraded equivalents become as common as smartphones. My speculations are aided by my watching an 8-minute video made by Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal, who went to a cabin at a ski resort with some video producers and wore a Vision Pro for most of 24 hours.

A whole new world

When you wear a Vision Pro, your entire visual field is mediated, in a literal sense. You can't see anything directly. All you see is a projection of two high-resolution video screens that go directly to your eyeballs. In order to see anything, including the ordinary world around you, you have to use the multiple cameras mounted on the Vision Pro. Everything you see goes into the cameras, through Apple's proprietary software and some of the 600 apps now available for the device, and only then do you get to see anything.

And it works the other way too. Physically, the Vision Pro looks like a pair of unusually bulky ski goggles, with a head strap to keep it on and a fanny-mounted battery pack that has to be recharged every two or three hours. The outer surface of the goggles is also a video screen, and in order to present something other than a blank shiny surface to someone the wearer is talking with in person, the screen presents video images of the wearer's eyes. This is after the wearer has taken a photograph of her or his entire face, so the system knows how to present a somewhat reasonable facsimile of the wearer's visage.


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Videoconferencing is one of the big intended uses of Vision Pro, but you can't just point a camera at a roomful of people wearing bulky headsets that cover their faces. Apple to the rescue — the 3-D photos of the wearer stored in the system are used to create "avatar" faces to present to the other people in the videoconference.

From all the reactions to Stern's avatar that she accumulated in her video calls using the Vision Pro, there was one unanimous opinion: her avatar looked terrible. Even Apple has not yet overcome the "uncanny valley" effect in trying to use computing to simulate the human visage. According to the uncanny valley hypothesis, unless a human simulation is extremely authentic (the good side of the valley), people will sense that something is off and have a negative reaction to it.

At the other side of the valley, a cruder image is seen as merely cartoonish and not uncanny. Maybe Apple should have gone that route, as most people would prefer to see an obviously artistic caricature of a friend, rather than an image that is like something that an undertaker might manage to do with a corpse.

Augmented reality

That was probably the worst experience Stern had with the device. Although Apple doesn't recommend cooking while wearing the Vision Pro, Stern went right ahead and chopped onions, and was delighted to find that the airtight seal around her eyes prevented her eyes from watering. (Chopping onions in a pan of water, I am told, is just as effective, and $3,500 cheaper.) And the 3-D movies available from some (not all) streaming services were impressive.

You can record your own 3-D videos with either the Vision Pro or the latest iPhone (15, I believe), and Stern tried this feature out while skiing, another activity that Apple doesn't recommend for Vision Pro wearers. But nothing bad happened on her bunny-run venture down the slopes, and the overall impression Stern left with her viewers is that this is still a prototype, but if they work out some bugs and get the battery life up and the power consumption down, along with the price, Apple may have finally found what Google tried to find with Google Glass and failed to do back in 2015: a mass market for what most people still call virtual-reality or augmented-reality headsets.

Apple avoids both of those terms and insists that what the Vision Pro allows is something they call "spatial computing". To my ears, this is a singularly unfortunate phrase, because it implies that the computer uses space somehow to calculate things. Well, every computer that takes up space does that, so it's just going to be a label for the 3-D techniques that the Vision Pro allows you to use for setting up your workspace.

Wearing a Vision Pro really cuts you off from ordinary reality in a much more radical way than using a smartphone does. Everything that you see passes first through the guts of the machine, rendering your entire visual field subject to the whims of the Vision Pro designers. Perhaps that sounds benign now.

But put this device in the hands of criminals, or even well-intentioned entertainers who simply want to thrill people, and it may open entirely new fields of horrors. It's too early to tell, but there will be downsides, especially if the Vision Pro proves as popular as Apple hopes. Let's just hope the downsides aren't too low.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Image: Apple


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  • Rob McKilliam
    commented 2024-02-18 11:52:36 +1100
    Another tech solution looking for a problem.