I think they're going to do it again.
I am professionally obliged to bore you to death with my thoughts on Apple’s new AR / VR headset, Vision. I recognize that this is distasteful, and as a compromise I will not be emailing this post out. I also have not seen other takes on Vision, so this could be wholly redundant.
First, the good news: a few months ago, I argued in a gloomy post that software designers face a declining field with worsening professional prospects in the near future. I said there were some reasons for hope, however:
[Software designers should] pray that Apple (or whoever) figures out a new, absolutely massively popular paradigm for computing. If, for example, they land AR / VR, we will once again face a world of businesses who need to figure out how their goods and services make sense in a new context: how should we display Substack posts in AR, for example? Which metaphors should persist into the new world? What’s the best way to shop for shoes in VR? What affordances empower the greatest number of people? Human factors, art history, technological history, design methodologies, and all the other disparate fields software designers span will once again be necessary, although AI will make reproducing commodifying standards much faster. But there will at least be another period when engineers who “just ship” will produce such massively worse user interfaces that software designers will be important again.
While there’s lots up in the air, I think we may be just a few years away from the promised land: “a world of businesses who need to figure out how their goods and services make sense in a new context.”1 I mentioned “the best way to shop for shoes” above. Let’s look at the situation:
At launch, the way you’ll buy shoes in Vision will be: look at and launch Safari; speak “nike dot com” into the search field while looking at it; and then browse a giant floating window with the Nike website in it. In other words: it’ll be “the way we do it now,” only in Vision.
Within years, though, it’s probable that none of that will be how we shop for shoes. It’s an open question what will happen with the web: will it become spatial? Or will it get deprecated? But whether you go to a “site” or an “app,” it’s possible that e.g. you’ll launch an experience that renders your apartment as the Nike store: it changes the colors of your walls and lighting but puts the shoes you’re interested in on your actual furniture. You pick up a shoe and look at it, turning it around in your hand. (How do we manage those gestures, their interference with other OS gestures?) Then, you’re ready to buy: is there… a CG / GPT salesperson? Is there a “shopping cart” you “put the shoe in”? When does the payment process, exactly, and how? How does shipping information get captured? What will work for the most users?
This is what software designers might spend the next decade working out, for every kind of experience or transaction that exists. If nothing else, designers should be eager for Vision to succeed, as it’s our best shot at continued gainful employment!
But will it succeed?
I think it will. Historical pattern-matching is one of the easiest ways to make a fool out of yourself, but I did have real déjà vu watching the WWDC keynote. This was so much like so many other Apple announcements:
They enter a promising but disorganized category some years after major entrants have launched unsuccessful products.
Their entry isn’t magical, doesn’t solve all the problems that competitors have blamed for their inferior products, underwhelms those loosely tracking the industry / category.
Their entry is more integrated, polished, elegant, and expensive than those of competitors (often prohibitively expensive); it nails a few use cases competitors may have under-honed and has some elements that make even nerds go “okay, whoa, this element is impressive.”2
Their entry is still “weird and futuristic and possibly dorky” to the mass market (people forget that this was true of iPod and iPhone too!)
Their product + their marketing make what was a jumble of features in other products into a compelling and focused set of value proposition that, together, threaten many verticals at once
Since iPhone was the last such major product, it’s natural to compare this launch to that one. But I think Vision is interesting because it seems more like Newton than iPhone. Setting aside any personal impressions, aspects of the device are indisputably immature: two hours is no one’s idea of good battery life; it’s not even enough for a cross-country flight! And I doubt Apple’s ideal conception of this product has a battery pack or is so heavy and so thick as this version is. Similarly, the price is far higher than anyone would like; it cannot be a mass-market device at $3499, as they surely know.
So Apple is starting earlier than they did with iPhone in terms of fundamental technological maturity. This makes me wonder: what is their insight into or capacity to predict hardware development timelines and cost reductions? Do they have reason to believe that prices of relevant components will decline given a scaled, volume-selling market? Or that batteries will soon enough scale down (or improve) substantially? iPhone’s price was dropped mere months after its launch because early ordering was so robust, but it only dropped from $600 to $400; what’s needed with Vision is substantially greater price reduction, unless they envision this as small market product! And while many new technologies have greatly improved iPhone since launch, it didn’t require the level of formal and functional innovation to become desirable to the mass market that I think Vision does.
But even if Vision is very early for an Apple launch, it’s easy to see initial versions threatening some percentage of the high-end monitor and television and projector markets; across consumer and industrial / commercial uses, this is actually a larger target than might be obvious, especially in revenue / margin terms, but they won’t own it all by any means. There are just too many limitations to Vision today. Nevertheless, I think they can sell a lot of what they have now to
home theater / audio-video enthusiasts / film nerds;
gamers (possibly, depending on how they work with publishers / platforms);
heavy computer users, like engineers or designers or the like; if Vision is just better than all possible monitors, it could lead to business-funded adoption, which helps a lot;
solo gadget geeks and the curious;
and other niches that in total can probably fund and justify substantial further pursuit of this category.
While many have noted that it’s impossible to imagine groups or families watching things together with Vision, I think they’re underestimating how much solitary viewing and gaming and computing occur. If Vision is a great experience —and based on early usage reports, it appears to be— this alone could make it successful.
If, somehow reaching near $1000, a future version is far and away the best way to watch or play anything, it will start to creep further into the mass market; and that will lead to more forms and patterns of usage. For example, couples who watch things “together” with these on —because it’s like being at IMAX in sound and video terms— will become more common. Still, how Apple solves for families is beyond me! In any event, specific use-cases often get left behind when overall improvements drive a paradigm migration. I used to game with friends locally in split-screen on my television! We all miss it, but we all really like the networked world we live in now. Technological progress nearly always involves trade-offs.
For myself: I use a computer all day long. If Vision does nothing but “give me better monitors and a better workspace than I can possibly have otherwise,” that would be enticing; because I often watch things late at night and utterly alone, Vision is fully compelling. It’s crazy expensive, though, without actually being able to either (1) make the computer cheaper to buy or (2) obviate the need for a TV. I think that’s probably one of the riskiest elements of the launch: iPhone really did right away obliterate some categories in a way that made its value impossible to miss for regular consumers. I doubt even those of us who are interested in Vision intend to ditch TVs or quit buying laptops with integrated monitors or whatever. Maybe within a few years it’ll be readier to replace other devices, but that seems like a concern.
Perhaps human behavior is so broadly-understood that Apple didn’t need to cover what I assume will be a popular initial use-case.
And I do wonder if other AR platforms will endure solely by virtue of likely being more tolerant of pornography than Apple is. If I were Zuck, I’d be reaching out to adult entertainment companies this week; Oculus could do a lot worse than being known as “the one for porn,” and probably will.
But there was another missing theme in the marketing: profundity. Spatial computing is a potentially profound development. For decades, designers in particular have reasoned that by incorporating depth, space, movement, and physics into interfaces, we can make them more intuitive, more expressive, more powerful (and useful for more people). Indeed, people who are really excited about Vision tend to talk about this much more than e.g. “it’s going to be so much better than most TVs for watching Netflix!” What will turn out to be the best ways to make software for (and in!) spatial contexts? Will “windows” as a metaphor persist? Will “apps” persist? What kinds of things can people create in spatial contexts, if sufficiently empowered (and how should they be empowered)?
Perhaps it’s simply too pretentious to spend much time on what might be possible in spatial computing in the longer-term; wiser to focus more on “what buying this gadget will do for me, as an end-user” than on “bicycle for the mind”-style philosophical marketing, since the only path to that future anyway is through selling a lot of these now.
But I do think this accounts for a funny vibe: somehow, Vision seems not to have ignited elite or techie enthusiasm, even though most people in conversation grudgingly admit that having infinite magical floating monitors or a 100’ wide television seems good. Elites seem to have mostly concentrated their reaction on imagining how bad it would be if everyone wore this device all the time and never looked at flowers or their relatives again. And normal people seem to think it’s weird, mostly, but kind of interesting; they’ve reserved judgment, maybe.
The next decade(s)
The biggest open questions about Vision, to me, are: what will happen with its hardware / industrial design and price over the next 5-10 years? If the device doesn’t get much cheaper and doesn’t get much smaller, I wouldn’t be optimistic; I don’t think Apple would be, either, so I think we can take the launch as evidence that they expect to be able to get to lower price points and better physical designs. It seems likely to me they anticipate making Vision a wearable someday, but that seems extremely hard to imagine from the present.
If, as it appears, Apple is up against hard physics limitations, these questions of price and design are extremely interesting; they don’t just represent questions of business strategy but of human possibility. That they went ahead perhaps suggests that they’re confident in what we can achieve here, and that’s cause for optimism in itself.
Some final observations:
The decision to include a costly, single-use OLED display on the outside of the device solely for when someone else enters the room is extremely interesting. Imagine the debates! Is that moment really so important that we need a second goddamn OLED panel? Either testing or theory led Apple to think: yes, it is. I find that fascinating in itself, and also reflective of why Apple is able to outcompete other companies: there is no chance that Oculus would have done this; it’s not market-justified!
Hiding the top strap is extremely funny; it reminded me andof the “you’re holding it wrong” chapter in iPhone history. People forget that Apple will ship insane shit and hide defects and do whatever other skullduggerous shit they feel they have to!
For software designers curious about how to prepare: get into 3D and motion, especially the relevant tools; read up on 3D interfaces / ZUIs and their many failures; and get into any online scenes relating to this area (you could start with Oculus-adjacent scenes e.g.). I’d also recommend getting a unit if you can afford one and making it a priority to play around in it and build interfaces for it ASAP.
In addition to Zuck’s leaked copium memo, it’s also very funny to realize that there were surely people at Oculus (and HTC and elsewhere) advocating to “make it nicer,” and they definitely got shouted down by efficiency-minded market realists who said things like “based on our survey, there’s just no evidence consumers want higher-resolution screens or care about materials vs. price,” and now FB et alia are literally in the position of seeing someone come in and possibly own the whole scene just by… making it nice, with no data, with no evidence that “nice” is worthwhile beyond our human awareness that nice shit is better than not-nice shit. How many times does this have to happen?! Probably infinite more times.