Apple Vision Pro: a tentative first step into a phygital world

The launch of the Vision Pro is the end of a decade of development — but only the very beginning of figuring out what spatial computing is.

It’s too expensive, too clunky, and anyway, what would you use it for? It’s basically just a very pricey toy.

But that’s enough about the original 1984 Apple Macintosh. Let’s talk about Vision Pro. Apple has had a quite remarkable run over the last 25 years. Again and again, it’s taken an existing technology category, and completely redefined it. The iPod made the earlier generation of MP3 players look hopelessly clumsy. The iPhone redefined smartphones to the degree that they all still have the same basic design, 17 years on.

The iPad stole the nascent tablet category from Microsoft, which had been working on tablet devices for half a decade, and became almost the generic name for the device. And the Apple Watch is by far the most commonly seen smartwatch on people’s wrists. All categories that were redefined by Apple. But every company stumbles eventually. Will this be Apple’s stumble?

Apple’s long-term bet

Or, will Apple do it again? The pattern is the same as before. This isn’t a brand-new device in a brand-new category, whatever Apple would like us to believe. Both key aspects of the device have been done before:

  • The headset/VR element is available right now via Meta’s Oculus line.
  • The AR element was brought to market by Google in the form of Glass. Back in the NEXT Berlin days, we even held a Glass users’ meet-up nearly a decade ago. Yet, the device was finally discontinued last year.

And Apple has put at least eight years into refining this product:

The first time Tim Cook experienced the Apple Vision Pro, it wasn’t called the Apple Vision Pro. It was years ago; maybe six, seven, or even eight. Before the company built Apple Park, where we’re sitting right now, at a bleached oak table in this incredible circular edifice of a building clad in miles of curved glass. It’s been raining, and the clouds are clearing over the pine trees and the rows of citrus and maple trees, and the sun is reflecting off the pond in the meadow, and it’s kind of mesmerizing. And Cook’s telling me about that time, all those years ago, in his dulcet Robertsdale, Alabama, accent, when he first saw it.

Something like a decade of work has gone into it. Apple is one of the few companies with the financial resources to work on something for that long before making a single cent back in sales. And that means that, when a product eventually merges, it’s both slick and interesting.

The early verdict on the Vision Pro

The reviews — so far — are largely positive. There are complaints: that the headset is too heavy, that the signature eyesight feature — that shows your eyes on a screen on the front of the device — is a waste of time or worse:

When people do see your eyes, it’s a low-res, ghostly image of them that feels like CGI. The effect is uncanny — the idea that you’ll be making real eye contact with anyone is a fantasy. And there are no controls or indicators in visionOS for this external display, so you never really know what other people are seeing. Imagine looking someone directly in the eyes and talking to them without knowing if they can see your eyes — it’s weird!

But, fundamentally, these reviews don’t matter. Apple can only make several hundred thousand of these things this year, because of supply constraints on the eye screens. And they’re likely to shift every single one to the well off early adopter crowd.

What matters is if they can sell more of them next year, once those wealthy early adopters already have them. And if they can then persuade the pool of buyers to expand as the price and size of the device drop. Declaring success or failure is likely to be a years-long project, not a breathless YouTube hottake in the first few months.

Some people even think that Apple actively needs a flop. Certainly, its response to the EU’s Digital Markets Act suggests a company that combines a degree of hubris with a deep disinclination to be told what to do. But, in the end, Apple’s success or not won’t matter in the very long term. There’s something in this notion of spatial computing that people have been playing with for over a decade. They haven’t yet got the form factor right. And maybe Vision Pro’s role will just be a signpost in the right direction.

One could argue that that original, clunky Mac was just the first tentative step in the direction that led ultimately to the iPhone. The earliest manifestation of GUI-based personal computing to what looks like its ultimate expression: the handheld device with a touch screen.

Vision Pro: the herald of the phygital world

Could Vision Pro be the first step on a new journey? Perhaps. There’s certainly a desire for something here, the ability to blend physical reality with persistent digital objects within this space. This is what David Mattin described as the phygital world at NEXT Conference back in September. VR is of the old paradigm: it’s a digital world separate from the physical. The metaverse (if that term persists) is not of this universe, it’s an alternative digital one.

But we are only at the start of this journey. The market for $3500 headsets is, inevitably, not big. This is in no danger of being a consumer device any time soon. But then, that first Mac didn’t turn into a mainstream consumer device for at least 15 or 16 years. And the thing that really made most people feel that they needed a personal computer wasn’t the apps (or applications, as we still called them back then). And it wasn’t the form factor. It was the internet and its growing centricity in people’s lives. Indeed, arguably the iPhone’s biggest single selling point was that it was the internet in your pocket.

And so, the Vision Pro, if it works (and that’s a big if still), really is only the first step in the direction of spatial computing, a blended phygital world. We can guarantee that the hardware will get better. And by “better”, we mean both smaller and cheaper. Relentless iterative hardware improvement is Apple’s real secret sauce.

The spatial computing killer app

But what Apple can’t do is tell us what people will use it for. What will be the killer app for spatial computing in the way that the internet turned out to be for personal computing? Here again, Apple has form. When the Watch launched nearly a decade ago, Apple threw plenty of bets on the table about what we would use for it. Some of those bets — like digital touch — didn’t pay off and are deeply buried in the product. I’ve been a regular Apple Watch user from day one, and I had to look up how to send my heartbeat these days.

But Apple watched and learned and shaped the product around the message that came back. The Watch turned out to be a health and communications device. What will Vision Pro be?

For once, we’re presented with an Apple device that there won’t be an early mover advantage, unless you’re targeting the wealthy and digitally savvy. Instead, we’re afforded the luxury of time to think, and watch, and see what develops. History suggests that ignoring this device would be an error. But, as the heavy, oddly shaped and expensive Mac showed, you can afford to give it time to blossom before you act.

Photo by chakisatelier on AdobeStock.