Is Apple’s new headset the metaverse’s Phoenix?

Is Apple’s new headset the metaverse’s Phoenix?
Apple’s new Vision Pro. (Photo: Supplied)

Hello? Is there anything else out there? Besides AI and crypto?

Well, yes, there is. The “top technology trends” reports from the big research companies have a lot to say about that. AI and blockchain, of course, but also a bunch of other contenders too – drones, datafication, hyper-networking, 3D printing, the perennial Internet-of-things, the even more perennial “autonomous” automation and so on. The list doesn’t change that much, year-on-year. 

And then there is what is grandly called XR. Extended Reality. An etymological progeny of virtual reality and augmented reality. Also a perennial on the new-tech lists. After all, Jaron Lanier released his first VR headset in 1987, which I was able to try a few years later when I was working in animation in LA. It was very early technology, although it feels like everything was early back then. It was also a time when I was less cynical – I was embarrassingly entranced by the experience.

Which, of course, brings me to Apple’s new Vision Pro announcement last week. This had been hotly anticipated and the first surprise was the name. Somehow the inside rumour mill missed it; it was supposed to have been called Reality Pro. And then there was the price. $3,499. Ouch. Apple is not known for releasing inexpensive stuff, as we know from the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the Airpods and, well, everything Apple. We pay handsomely for their endlessly iconic tech and are usually happy to do so. 

But $3,499? Still, Apple product launches usually ensnare those early adopters for whom first-to-play is more important than cost. So, it will sell out when it finally lands, and then the cost will drop somewhat and China will ramp up bargain-basement knock-offs, most likely ignoring IP protections that Apple is certain to have lodged. 



So, what’s new here? A lot, and it bumps this new headset a good couple of notches up from previous attempts. Of which there have been many, by many different companies, none of which really caught the public imagination beyond some gamers and nerdies – VPL Research, The Virtual Group, Sega, Nintendo, Oculus, Samsung, Google and others. 

This headset integrates both VR and AR, meaning one can experience both totally immersive experiences, or, alternatively one can see the real physical world while also having applications “float” in front of one’s eyes, with which the wearer can interact as they would on a computer. None of this is particularly new, and not everyone is a fan, as evidenced by a recent (paraphrased) exchange between Kara Fisher and Scott Galloway, hosts of the excellent and very funny tech podcast Pivot

Galloway – ‘I don’t get it. What f*cking problem is it solving?’

Swisher – ‘It will stop you looking at your phone all day’.

Good point. If you are staring through goggles on which floats a computer screen, then you don’t have to lower your chin to check your mobile all the time. No more bobbing heads and outright rudeness (like glancing at your screen when someone is talking to you, which I am often guilty of). But surely $3,499 buys a lot more than that? 

It does. The most eye-popping (excuse the pun) feature is called Eyesight. One of the previous problems of these headsets was the inability of someone else (for instance, a colleague walking up to you) to know whether or not you are busy watching an all-immersive something or other . Eyesight can detect what mode you are in and will display a nice animation on the outside of the goggles, as a signal to anyone that you are, well, immersed (although you can enable an auto-interrupt if someone gets close).

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But if you are doing something only partially distracting, like glancing at Facebook page floating in front of you while still being able to see the real world outside, then the outside of the goggles will show a rendering of your eyes, captured by two internal infrared cameras, with your physical eye movements captured in real time,  allowing you to communicate with another human with all appropriate eye contact – blinks, rolls, side glances, squints, etc. 

This seems to me to be particularly clever, a neat twist on combining the real world with the virtual world and human interaction, and something not previously seen in VR/AR product attempts. But it also seems that it may be a little creepy for the person on the other side of the headset. They are not looking at your real eyes, but just a digital simulacrum. Not sure how naturally one would react to that. 

There is also a comprehensive set of interaction tools. Let’s say you have a Twitter screen hanging in space in front of your eyes. How do you click “like”. Or scroll? Or drag?  Or any other thing you can do with your touchpad on your computer. The designers have cleverly integrated eyes, wrists, fingers and voice. For instance, just stare at the “like” button and pinch your fingers together – the button will activate. All sorts of multimodal gestural ways to signal are facilitated. Early reports are that they are extremely intuitive and easy to learn. And as much fun as Tom Cruise seemed to be having in the 2002 science fiction film Minority Report.

Anyway, fancy features aside, there are some interesting matters that come with this product announcement.

Obviously, the price and physical size of Vision Pro is going to prevent mass adoption, and Apple is nothing if not a maker of consumer products. We can assume that they are working on a lighter, smaller, more affordable versions – ones that look and feel more like regular glasses. Of course, Google tried a “heads-up display” version in 2012 with their Google Glass. Excitement for a while, and then a quiet retreat into the mists of history. Although one should also keep an eye on Meta’s coming Quest Pro, which will be about half the cost of Vision Pro. 

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Is there any reason to expect a different outcome now, long lines outside Apple stores and the like? Maybe there is one lurking in plain sight.

The metaverse. 

This much-maligned creature has been a little bruised of late, after some early breathless enthusiasm. Largely caused by lack of clear business models, non-interoperability and lack of standards, static and clunky and sometimes downright embarrassing “play/live/work” 3D environments.  And Zuck’s very public spend and retreat over the past few years. 

Perhaps the prospect of a deep-tech, massively interactive, multifeatured, kind-of-affordable pair of XR glasses from one of the most innovative tech brands in the world, plus a soupçon of AI to add some ever-changing dynamic environments is just the shot in the arm the metaverse needs. 

So I give you a pithy quote from serial tech entrepreneur Shaan Puri: “The metaverse is not a place but a time – the moment when our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life.”

Perhaps Vision Pro is bringing that time a little closer. DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor of Practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg and the author of seven books.


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