Future Double Vision
What is it about dreamers that brings out trolls? Apple’s latest release has triggered a storm of armchair critics who seem set on condemning it right from the start. I wish there was a bit more optimism and vision to hand. Maybe we blew all that enthusiasm on blockchain and AI?
Some of this response is habit: controversy gets clicks. And some is down to a lack of imagination. Many can find it hard to see how different the future can be. And yet, those over 30 can easily remember when nobody had an iPhone, a cellphone, the internet or even a color computer. The rate of change in the world seems to be accelerating, so maybe let’s get our rose-colored glasses on and ask: if this works, what does working look like?
I want to concentrate on three areas: how these devices will improve, how existing experiences will get better, and what kind of completely new things might be enabled should the first two happen.
Continuously Getting Better
If you were to go watch some YouTube videos about the first iPhone, you’d be shocked. It was, to put not too fine a point on it, crap. Tiny battery. No apps. Ran hot. Very slow internet. You couldn’t even change the background wallpaper. As a stand-alone device, it could easily be labeled as ‘worse’ than some older smartphones that had already been released, such as the Ericsson P800, Treos, and Blackberries.
How did it go from crap to world-class?
Incremental improvements. Lots of them. Apple (and Android phone makers) consistently improved year over year. Batteries got bigger and better. CPUs got faster and more efficient. Screens got bigger and had higher resolutions. And, primarily, software improved in leaps and bounds. A million flowers bloomed, literally, well, five million actually.
The same thing will likely happen with the Vision and a few other devices. It’s too soon to label Meta as the Android of headsets, but I reckon it’s got a good chance at that title.
VR at scale hasn’t happened sooner because of at least two things: there’s a chicken-and-egg effect for fundamental technologies that make progress suddenly jump forward at a certain scale, and once a system becomes basically usable, a much larger group can fund innovation to really get going.
So, it’s obvious that if it survives, the Vision headset will get smaller, lighter, and cooler. It has to. EyeSight will either be fixed so you can easily see it, or it will go away. The uncanny horde of FaceTime zombies will get movable hair and higher resolutions and be preferred to your own face (you can finally meet in your pajamas and without doing your hair!). These gaps and many others will be plugged by a million apps.
And, of course, there’s the price. I don’t know why folks are worried about this: electronics have been getting cheaper and better for over 60 years. Why stop now? Imagine a Vision Pro costing as much as an iPhone. See section 3 for a really powerful vision here, where it replaces your MacBook.
For example, compare iPhones at 5-year intervals to see what I mean. I’m unsure how far this can go: batteries are still way behind silicon for speed of innovation, and the final usable form may be goggles, glasses, or something else. But whatever it is will be much, much better.
Changing Existing Experiences, aka “Killer Apps”
The big deal Apple brings to the table is content. Content strategies on the iPhone and Apple TV show they know how to deal with big media.
If you’ve tried any other headset, you’ll know that getting high-quality content to watch is really hard, never mind 3D content. But when you do, you lose yourself in it really easily.
Apple announced a deal with Disney to provide access to 180 titles in 3D, and I really think, at some point, watching on the headset will become the preferred choice. Already today, Meta’s Quest 3 headset feels a bit like sitting in a 10-15-year-old high-end media room with a giant, janky, noisy & warm 1080p projector, but otherwise, it’s an absorbing experience. The Vision Pro takes this to the next level.
And what comes next is what is truly exciting. It comes in several steps.
First, imagine that watching a movie on the headset is as good as or better than a 100” 4K screen. Colors, definition, clarity, etc.
Now, imagine a growing amount of 3D content. Now you feel like you’re visiting somewhere instead of just watching.
But next, imagine watching with your friends. They appear in the room with you via the Avatar feature. You can talk to each other as if you don’t have the headsets on. These people could be a long way away. Imagine watching TV every night with your best friends. You’re watching something and see if your close friends are watching it too, and if they are, you all hang out together. TV like back in the 1970s but better in almost every other way.
But wait, it gets better. There’s very limited 4k content out there, but watching any sport at this level on a VR headset is a superior experience to watching it on any TV. You can be court-side, and it truly feels like you’re there.
Now add on: you can move anywhere in the court. And you can interact with your buddies. Or even strangers. Imagine millions of people all watching the same event, and you can interact with some of them. Maybe only fans on your side, from your city. You can replay it and have a different experience each time, interacting with whoever is watching it, too. VIP access to the players. After match interviews. The revenue and experience opportunities are endless. You could literally see a 10x or even a 100x increase in sporting revenues with a global audience and careful curation of the experiences.
Which brings me to the next killer app: live performance. Now, you can all watch Taylor Swift on her opening night. Front row. With your friends. Without ever leaving home. And don’t worry about that loo break, it’s just a few steps away.
So you have better movies, better sports and better live music. If they can get battery life, avatars, and prices down (see above), this will surely follow as long as content providers cooperate. If this comes slowly, it will be, like Cable TV, because of the power of the incumbents, but if it’s superior, it will provide leverage to those trying to drag us into the future.
The last bit, which might be a stretch. All these experiences are based on a fixed camera. You’re basically looking out through the camera and can switch between many different angles. I’m still not sure this is even possible, but imagine if a computer could stitch together a 3d space from many cameras and recreate any angle. Now you can run with the players, stand on stage and fly around the stadium. I didn’t focus on this as I’m not sure it can be done: everything else I’ve written about is dependent on deals with content providers, not amazing new technology breakthroughs. But just imagine…
And Now for Something Completely New
To me, the first two areas (better hardware, killer apps) are inevitable. This area is where we get a little more speculative and with that, a vision that’s a lot more powerful.
If you try Virtual Desktop on a Quest today, you’ll get a glimpse of the first ways we will change how we work. Virtual Desktop is laggy, unintuitive, and gives you motion sickness unless you’ve set up maximum performance (and therefore battery drain). Yet it gives a good idea of what’s possible. An improved Vision Pro and Apple’s legendary talents at intuitive user interfaces will solve this.
Now, what does this change?
Already, reviewers are saying that pairing the headset with a MacBook, keyboard, and mouse is a game changer. But why do we need a MacBook? Let’s use an iPhone now that we have an external keyboard, mouse and, thanks to Vision Pro, a dope screen. You won’t need a laptop, and you won’t need TVs or monitors either. Suddenly, that $3500 on your MacBook and another few thousand on TVs and monitors looks expensive compared to a performant, comfortable and improved Vision Pro.
Ah, but wait. No screens, you say? Imagine a world without any computer gear on office desks. Yes, I remember such a world. I was one of the people who deployed all this stuff to your desks in the first place back in the 1990s. Offices are completely different places without monitors. They were originally designed to be that way. Spread out. Talk to humans. Come out from behind the screen.
Hang on, why do we even need an office? Why can’t I “walk” over to your desk to chat using a kind of FaceTime? I hate Zoom with a passion because it filters body language, but Apple, with its deeply intuitive understanding of humans, is spending huge sums on making every tick of your face replicate on a headset. Now, I don’t even need to go into the office to see my colleagues, attend an all-hands or visit a client. We really could have tele-meetings that are as good or better as those in person.
Take this a step further and imagine a world without screens. I think things like transparent OLEDs will survive as a kind of decorative and interactive fancy wallpaper, and maybe in large common areas like airports for signage, but if we can shrink VR units down to a place where they are the same weight and battery performance as an iPhone is today, we shouldn’t really need screens: our headsets will be so much better.
And this is the point: when I bought an Ericsson P800 in 2002, I had a vision of the iPhone in 2024 in my mind. That vision has become a reality twenty-plus years and hundreds of billions of dollars later. I think the same will probably happen with the Vision Pro and other headsets like it. Plenty can go wrong, and I’m open to the idea that we look ridiculous with the headsets on, but then again, I looked ridiculous with my luggable Panasonic cellphone in 1988 and again with my Bluetooth headset talking to myself in the 1990s. Just because Google screwed up the Google Glasses doesn’t mean it’s inevitable that we’ll stick with screens. This kind of change has happened repeatedly in the past, and I think we’re about to see it happen again with XR and Spatial Computing. I may be wrong, but this is how I think it will go if it’s possible, and I think it is possible.
The future is exciting and scary, and I can’t wait to see how it pans out.
Footnote: I didn’t go into how spatial computing will change user interfaces and how we consume data; how it can help nourish and feed human connection; and what kids who grow up with it might be like. That’s for another time.