I’ll confess that when Apple introduced its mixed-reality Vision Pro headsets on Monday, one of my first thoughts was: Man, that thing looks weird.
I wasn’t alone. On social media, the reaction to the Vision Pro was less than kind. Skeptics mocked the device’s snowboard-goggle-like appearance, its steep price tag ($3,500) and Apple’s lofty pitch about the “spatial computing” era its arrival heralded. There were comparisons to the robot WALL-E, and Twitter memes about people watching pornography in virtual reality.
I get it. I’ve been a virtual reality skeptic for years, and I have long wondered why the technology hasn’t gone mainstream, even as headset quality has improved. I was always dubious about Mark Zuckerberg’s pitch for the metaverse, which had “personal conquest” vibes more so than “actual market demand” vibes. And if you’d asked me before Monday’s announcement whether I thought Apple’s mixed-reality headset signified the beginning of a huge, earthshaking platform shift, on the order of the original iPhone’s arrival, I would have said no.
But after seeing Apple demonstrate the Vision Pro on Monday — and reading the generally positive reviews from folks who have tested it — I now think it could be a big deal, and possibly even the first hint of a revolutionary new computing platform.
There are plenty of reasons the Vision Pro could flop. It could be too expensive, too ugly, too isolating. Convincing developers to build good, useful smartphone apps is easier than convincing them to build apps for a device you have to strap to your head, for an audience that has never really materialized at a meaningful scale. And Apple could discover what Meta found so far with its forays into productivity-based V.R. apps — that there just aren’t a ton of people in the world who are interested in reading their emails in V.R.
But I can’t dismiss the possibility that despite its limitations — such as the need to tote around a connected battery pack — the Vision Pro could be a hit.
Is it expensive? Yes. But so are lots of first-generation gadgets, and the “Pro” in the name suggests that a less expensive, more consumer-oriented model may be on the way.
Is it fun and impressive to use? Early testers seem to think so, although they haven’t had much time with it, and they’re a fairly excitable group. The real test will come when the devices are actually shipped to users (early next year, according to Apple) and people start working them into their daily routines.
Part of my open-mindedness to the Vision Pro, I admit, is because of a kind of tech columnist P.T.S.D. In 2013, before the first Apple Watch was released, I wrote a column confidently declaring that smartwatches were a dumb idea. I mocked their looks, dismissed them as expensive toys, and I boldly proclaimed that Apple would be crazy to invest heavily in a product category that I couldn’t imagine resonated beyond young, moneyed Silicon Valley nerds. (Apple is now the No. 1 watch brand in the world, and it sells an estimated 40 million watches every year. I wear one, as do many of my friends and relatives.)
Obviously, my Apple Watch prediction was extremely, comically wrong, for a few reasons.
First, I underestimated Apple’s ability to expand a market, turning a niche product category into a mainstream one. In 2013, there were other smartwatches on the market, and none of them had been huge hits, so I came to the conclusion that the Apple Watch wouldn’t be a huge hit, either. I looked at the bulky, ugly aesthetics of existing smartwatches and concluded that the kinds of people who were willing to wear them on their wrists every day — nerds like me — weren’t a big enough market to matter.
But I neglected to remember that Apple is Apple, and that it has repeatedly demonstrated that it can, through sheer force of will, turn a niche product for nerds into a thing that everyone wants.
That’s a testament to the company’s famous product and marketing prowess. And it’s part of why I’m reluctant to dismiss the Vision Pro’s chances.
Sure, there are good virtual and mixed-reality headsets out there, and even some decent apps for them. But those headsets aren’t made by Apple, and they haven’t been seamlessly integrated into the entire Apple ecosystem the way that Vision Pro will be. Having all of your iPhone contacts, iMessages and iOS settings integrated into a mixed-reality headset from the moment you turn it on could mean the difference between a device you actually use every day, and a novelty toy you shove into a closet after a few weeks.
Another error I made with the Apple Watch back in 2013 is that I forgot that human behavior is not fixed, and that our ideas of what is considered fashionable and socially acceptable change all the time in response to new technologies.
Back then, part of what I was reacting to was a social norm. At the time, it might have been considered rude to glance at your watch during a meeting, or while having dinner with your family. But a decade later, that action no longer registers (to me, at least) as inappropriate, because so many people now have Apple Watches that many people have developed new norms around it. Now, we assume that people who check their watches at dinner are probably trying to avoid pulling out their phones, which would be ruder and more disruptive. In other words, mass adoption killed the taboo.
The same thing could happen now with mixed-reality headsets. Sure, you might feel self-conscious putting on a Vision Pro today. But a few years from now, if a third of your co-workers are joining Zoom calls with their headsets, and you see people watching V.R. movies on every flight you take, it might not feel so dumb.
Apple has a knack for entering a product category at just the right time. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone in 2007, or even the first touch-screen smartphone. The iPad wasn’t the first tablet. But in both cases, the company brought excitement and sex appeal to products that hadn’t previously had it. Apple let other companies make some of the expensive mistakes, and it focused on making a great product.
The same thing could happen with Apple and the Vision Pro. Meta, Magic Leap and other companies have plowed billions of dollars into basic research and development for virtual and mixed reality headsets, learning from the failures of earlier devices like Google Glass. They’ve improved many of the device components, and the actual headsets are now more attractive. But they haven’t had a huge commercial hit.
That may be because virtual and augmented reality are fundamentally bad ideas, and that the market for these devices is destined to remain small. But it could be that the market just needed Apple to arrive. A few years from now, if you’re reading this on your Vision Pro, or in an Apple device attached directly to your corneas, don’t say I didn’t warn you.