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Transported into Spatial Computing

After years of rumors and speculation, Apple finally unveiled their virtual reality headset yesterday in a classic “One more thing…” segment in their keynote. Dubbed Apple Vision Pro, this mixed reality device is perfectly Apple: it’s human-first. It’s centered around extending human productivity, communication, and connection. It’s telling that one of the core problems they solved was the VR isolation problem. That’s the issue where users of VR are isolated from the real world; they don’t know what’s going on, and the world around them sees that. Insert meme of oblivious VR user here. Instead, with the Vision Pro, when someone else is nearby, they show through the interface. Additionally, an outward-facing display shows the user’s eyes. These two innovative features help maintain the basic human behavior of acknowledging each other’s presence in the same room.

I know a thing or two about VR and building practical apps for VR. A few years ago, in the mid-2010s, I cofounded a VR startup called Transported. My cofounders and I created a platform for touring real estate in VR. We wanted to help homebuyers and apartment hunters more efficiently shop for real estate. Instead of zigzagging across town running to multiple open houses on a Sunday afternoon, you could tour 20 homes in an hour on your living room couch. Of course, “virtual tours” existed already. There were cheap panoramas on real estate websites and “dollhouse” tours created using Matterport technology. Our tours were immersive; you felt like you were there. It was the future! There were several problems to solve, including 360° photography, stitching rooms together, building a player, and then most importantly, distribution. Back in 2015–2016, our theory was that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Sony, and Apple would quickly make VR commonplace because they were pouring billions of R&D and marketing dollars into the space. But it turned out we were a little ahead of our time.

Consumers didn’t take to VR as all the technologists predicted. Headsets were still cumbersome. The best device in the market then was the Oculus Rift, which had to be tethered to a high-powered PC. When the Samsung Gear VR launched, it was a game changer for us because the financial barrier to entry was dramatically lowered. But despite the big push from all these tech companies, the consumer adoption curve still wasn’t great.

For our use case—home tours—consumers were fine with the 2D Matterport tours. They didn’t want to put on a headset. Transported withered as the gaze from the tech companies wandered elsewhere. Oculus continued to come out with new hardware, but the primary applications have all been entertainment. Practical uses for VR never took off. Despite Meta’s recent metaverse push, VR was still seen as a sideshow, a toy, and not the future of computing.

Until yesterday.

Apple didn’t coin the term “spatial computing.” The credit belongs to Simon Greenwold, who, in 2003, defined it as “human interaction with a machine in which the machine retains and manipulates referents to real objects and spaces.” But with the headline “Welcome to the era of spatial computing,” Apple brilliantly reminds us that VR has practical use cases. They take a position opposite of the all-encompassing metaverse playland that Meta has staked out. They’ve redefined the category and may have breathed life back into it.

Beyond marketing, Apple has solved many of the problems that have plagued VR devices.

  • Isolation: As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Apple seems to have solved the isolation issue with what they’re calling EyeSight. People around you can see your eyes, and you can see them inside Vision Pro.
  • Comfort: One of the biggest complaints about the Oculus Quest is its heaviness on your face. Apple solves this with a wired battery pack that users put into their pockets, thus moving that weight off their heads. But it is a tether.
  • Screen door effect: Even though today’s screens have really tiny pixels, users can still see the individual pixels because they’re so close to the display. In VR, this is called the “screen door effect” because you can see the lines between the screen’s pixels. The Quest 2 is roughly HD-quality (1832x1920) per eye. Apple Vision Pro will be double that to 4K quality per eye. We’ll have to see if this is truly eliminated once reviewers get their hands on test units.
  • Immersive audio: Building on the spatial audio technology they debuted with AirPods Pro, Vision Pro will have immersive audio to transport users to new environments.
  • Control: One of the biggest challenges in VR adoption has been controlling the user interface. Handheld game controllers are not intuitive for most people. In the real world, you look at something to focus on it, and you use your fingers and hands to manipulate objects. Vision Pro looks to overcome this usability issue with eye tracking and finger gestures.
  • Performance: Rendering 3D spaces in real-time requires a ton of computing and graphics-processing power. Apple’s move to its own M-series chips leapfrogs those available on competitors’ devices.
  • Security: In the early days of the Oculus Rift, users had to take off their headsets in the middle of setup to create and log into an online account. More recently, Meta mandated that Oculus users log in with their Facebook accounts. I’m not sure about the setup process, but privacy-focused Apple has built on their Face ID technology to create iris scanning technology called Optic ID. This identifies the specific human, so it’s as secure as a password. Finally, your surroundings captured by the external cameras are processed on-device.
  • Cross-platform compatibility: If Vision Pro is to be used for work, it will need to be cross-platform. In Apple’s presentation, FaceTime calls in VR didn’t exclude non-VR participants. Their collaborative whiteboard app, Freeform, looked to be usable on Vision Pro.
  • Development frameworks: There are 1.8 million apps in Apple’s App Store developed using Apple’s developer toolkits. From the presentation, it looked like converting existing iOS and possibly macOS apps to be compatible with visionOS should be trivial. Additionally, Apple announced they’re working with Unity to help developers bring their existing apps—games—to Vision Pro.

While Apple Vision Pro looks to be a technological marvel that has been years in the making, I don’t think it’s without its faults.

  • Tether: The Oculus Quest was a major leap forward. Free from being tethered to a PC, games like Beat Saber were finally possible. While Vision Pro isn’t tethered to a computer, there is the cord to the wearable battery pack. Apple has been in a long war against wires—AirPods, MagSafe charging—and now they’ve introduced a new one.
  • Price: OK, at $3,500, it is as expensive as the highest-end 16-inch MacBook Pro. This is not a toy and not for everyday consumers. It’s more than ten times the price of an Oculus Quest 2 ($300) and more than six times that of a Sony PlayStation VR 2 headset ($550). I’m sure the “Pro” designation softens the blow a little.

Apple Vision Pro will ship in early 2024. I’m excited by the possibilities of this new platform. Virtual reality has captured the imagination of science-fiction writers, futurists, and technologists for decades. Being able to completely immerse yourself into stories, games, and simulations by just putting on a pair of goggles is very alluring. The technology has had fits and starts. And it’s starting again.

© 1995–2024 Roger Wong. All rights reserved.