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Apple’s Vision Pro feels as potentially transformative as the iPhone once did

Focus on spatial computing over virtual reality and AI signals Apple’s determination not to alienate its audience as it aims for mass market appeal

If you weren’t on social media this week, you might have passed the bank holiday Monday joyfully unaware that it was keynote day for the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (#WWDC23, if you are fond of hashtags).

I wasn’t there, but I’ve watched the stream since. The last time I was actually at an Apple WWDC, Steve Jobs snarked at the audience for having the temerity to be using the wifi connection because, collectively, we were absorbing the bandwidth slice Apple had allotted us and messing up his demo of a live FaceTime call. Apparently our fault, not Apple’s.

If the new feature was so fragile that it struggled in a setting where lots of people were online at the same time, in the headquarters of one of the most famous technology companies of all time, maybe it wasn’t quite ready for public demonstration.

Perhaps that’s also true of the headline product Apple launched this week, an augmented reality (AR) headset, Vision Pro, which will not even be available until 2024. The Vision Pro is what might result if you threw a pair of high-end ski goggles, a copy of the film Minority Report, a supercharged Oculus headset and a pinch of uncanny valley into a blender. Maybe, in time-honoured Apple fashion, they want a long lead time to build anticipation and advanced sales. Or maybe they recognise that people need time to absorb what this thing is and does, as it seems to whisk open potentially groundbreaking new directions in user interfaces and computing.


Since taking over from the late Jobs, Apple chief executive Tim Cook has never had the chance to launch something truly astonishing, as opposed to hyping refreshes of existing products. Granted, he launched the Apple Watch, which over time has come into its own, but isn’t exactly soul-stirring wowza tech. So he must have relished unveiling the Vision Pro (the “pro” designation is just marketing, but a so-Apple touch elevating the Vision above “amateur” alternatives).

You can watch an film about the Visio Pro here, in which the device is vignetted by attractive actors inhabiting the kind of sleek, tasteful dwellings and workplaces you’d expect if they could afford a $3,500 headset.

It’s a fascinating device that makes some sci-fi concepts a reality. But Apple aims to position it as a timely, people-focused device in the promotional video, which begs to be deconstructed as it streams. Here’s Apple choosing ethnically and age-diverse actors in clothes ranging from the futuristically stylish (that cream funnel-neck cocoon dress) to nondescript bearded dad plaid (everyone can use the Vision Pro!).

Apple eschews the possibly alienating “virtual reality” for “spatial computing” and never says AI (no existential threats to be scared of). Camera angles zoom out as an actor poses nearly motionless on a couch, nudging you to (eventually) notice her almost imperceptible hand gestures managing the device (no controllers or dramatic Tom Cruise Minority Report gestures needed).

The Vision Pro looks like a first, trial, still-clumsy form factor for something coming, something transformative

People do stuff on their own but also engage with people, even in the same room, with that little-bit-creepy, uncanny valley-ish feature that generates an image of your eyes on to the goggles so they appear – but aren’t – transparent (you’ll be more apres-ski than alienating Daft Punk). Someone grabs a handful of popcorn from a bowl while watching a film (you can “see” the room thanks to Vision’s cameras and aren’t locked away à la Oculus).

Tiny details matter here, and the film is masterful in visual and messaging terms, positioning Apple as the not-Meta/Facebook, not-Microsoft, not-Alphabet/Google, not-Twitter (and yes, they did a bit on privacy and security). It’s also the first product I’ve seen from Apple since the iPhone and iPad launches that made me think, wow.

It’s way too early to know if Vision Pro is a glimpse to where that whole ubiquitous computing metaverse thing is going to go, perhaps more augmented than virtual. Right now, you’d really have to want to blow some cash for not too much more than a very cool borderline-magical way of doing things you can do perfectly well in other ways (watch a film, play games, FaceTime, use apps) without having weird goggles on your head that only hold a two-hour charge.

And yet, and yet. To me – a not-getting-any-younger tech journalist whose first encounter with a computer was as a child in 1969 – the Vision Pro looks like a first, trial, still-clumsy form factor for something coming, something transformative.

The iPhone and iPad felt that way too. In a decade, they’ve reshaped assumptions about how to interact with tech, its portability, usability, accessibility, possibility. Keyboardless thin touchscreens were originally mind-blowing and, don’t forget, confusing and off-putting to many. They’re so normalised now as to be mundane. My Vision Pro gut reaction is that it looks like a signpost towards personal technology’s future directions, shifts that eventually won’t involve a headset at all. Probably. Maybe. Talk to me again in a decade.