gadg-et-oid [gaj-it-oid]


1. having the characteristics or form of a gadget;
resembling a mechanical contrivance or device.

A Vision Of Dystopia

On Monday, June 5, 2023 I watched the Apple WWDC keynote. Parts of it at least. A 15” Air? Cool. Does it run Linux? Mac Studio and Mac Pro… yeah, way out of my league. Some watch stuff? Eh. My brain tuned out as the world’s biggest nerd droned on about health or something. I’ll take an M3 Pro, please!

One more thing!

Apple announced their upcoming VR/AR headset with much fanfare. A slick, meticulously crafted, technology packed piece of art… modeled dispassionately by beautiful people, mostly alone in huge, expensive houses or apartments.

It’s. Not for me.

I’m not going to say it’ll fail, because it might not and I’ll look foolish. I’m not going to say it’ll succeed because it might not and I’ll look foolish. But what it is, is the antithesis of what I personally want out of a VR experience. I suppose that’s because the focus is on AR, but is this really augmented reality? Or just VR with camera tricks?

I’ve made my feelings about Meta’s Quest pretty clear. It’s awkward, unwieldy, inconvenient, antisocial, sweaty and fails miserably to create any kind of cohesive, cross application immersion. I don’t buy into Mark’s vision. I don’t want to voice chat with people.

Apple have fixed roughly two of these problems by gently side-stepping them. They avoided having to charge controllers by ditching them altogether. They fixed the immersion breaking nature of disparate VR applications by putting everything into a floating, disembodied window that lives either in a pass through simulacrum of your personal space or a virtual, surround environment.

It works, I suppose, but what bothers me is that $3,499 worth of immersive, 3D, VR/AR technology is being wasted to show us a picture of the world already around us, and- what- a bunch of flat, 2D, floating screens? Is this really it?

Perhaps Apple are right. Perhaps this is the stepping stone we need before leaping into a luscious, three dimensional detachment from the flat displays we’re all so utterly enamoured with. But I expected something bold and new and … different … rather than Apple laying out a stepping stone and inviting the rest of the industry- their development partners and the wider developer ecosystem- to take the risk and make that bold step out into the unknown.

And that’s what disappoints me about Vision Pro. I don’t want a virtual computer screen. I already have very good computer screens that I can work on for 8 hours a day, glancing periodically out of a door or window, sipping a cup of coffee and wheeling back and forth in my chair to work on projects. I don’t want to be blinkered and tethered and siloed into a claustrophobic little bubble. I like reality and it strikes me that this effort to augment it does absolutely nothing of the sort- simply replacing the real world with a convincing replica and using expensive fancy tricks to paint monitors over it. I’m not impressed.

But I’m less than impressed.

Apple’s presentation was also deeply unsettling. Whether it was the subtly evil android demeanour emanated by their choice of models. The distressing loneliness of almost every shot. The most divorced dad ever showing off how he doesn’t have to leave his bubble to interact with the kids. The deeply, deeply creepy nature of virtual avatar eyes peeping out of an auxiliary screen that exists for no other reason than to cling, helplessly, to the illusion that “everything is fine, this is AR, you’re seeing an overlay, we promise!”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The public reception of Google Glass was infamously poor and people didn’t take especially kindly to video-recording-glasses-wearing nerds potentially having a camera pointed at them- everywhere, all the time. It feels like we’re inching closer to something worse. One more step toward the middle class just… drawing a black box over the poor and the homeless so they don’t even have to put effort into pretending they don’t exist.

Apple are presenting an entirely new computing paradigm with branding, marketing, vertical integration and a price tag that say- “no, sorry, the future of education and computing isn’t for you, you’re too poor.” With a distressing FIVE THOUSAND parents giving Apple a moat you might confuse with an ocean it seems likely that no third party will be able to bring this paradigm to a lower price point.

And this has to a certain degree recontextualized how I see Apple’s marketing and PR. I now have perspective. In the phone world our little black rectangles are, and were, so utterly ubiquitous that Apple’s specific, expensive niche – and I flippin’ love my iPhone – is just a part of a widely accessible market with many, many price options. But Vision Pro – or AR – as a gateway to better learning, better working – it it proves useful beyond very specific niche caches – is currently a singularly unique prospect. Do we really want a dystopian future where the best, most intuitive computing paradigm is doled out at the behest of a single corporation.

In short I loathe it.

And that’s before we get to the typically Apple design choices. Vision Pro’s battery tether is spectacularly ridiculous. Put it in a pocket? Sure, what if I don’t have pockets? I thought we left wired headphones behind in 2016, Apple, what the hell is this?

And then there’s the personalisation. While I don’t really know how shareable VisionOS will make the device, with ocular recognition, custom fit head form and custom corrective lenses it feels like Vision Pro is intended to be as singularly personal as your smartphone. That’s a big ask from a very novelty, very expensive device. If it fits my head better, does it fit everyone else’s worse? When I tested the Meta Quest 2 I toured it around the family and shared the sheer novelty and wonder of the 3D, virtual experience. It was fun to share and see people try to orient themselves in this new paradigm. What’s the on-ramp going to be like for Vision users?

And, probably the thing I loathe most, where the hell are the games, Apple!?

The sheer absurdity of Apple missing this beat is baffling to me. You know what people gladly do alone for hours a day with a virtual avatar on expensive dedicated hardware? No, no! Not that. I meant video gaming.

Despite all the many, many flaws and frustrations I encountered trying to use the Meta Quest it was handily redeemed by excellent little gaming experiences that made the battle worthwhile. It’s a little like PC gaming, except instead of grappling with drivers, compatibility and quality settings you’re trying to keep the damned thing charged, adjust the headband, and not accidentally punch a wall or spill coffee while playing.

A lack of controllers seems like a pressing concern. But the iPhone came with no controls and now hosts perhaps the most successful gaming market in history. I don’t see games being a major hurdle for Vision Pro, but the cost for entry is extremely high for a novelty and … two hours of gameplay tops? Or the choice of tangling myself up in a USB type C cable? Uh, no thanks.

In summary? Yawn.

It’s clear that Vision is a wild departure from typical VR, intended to be a new computing paradigm for serious business by solemn professionals who don’t get wrapped up in wires or accidentally hit their TV while playing fitness games. As presented it’s a very stiff, boring and sedentary contrast to Quest’s heavy reliance on “hands on” fun and immersive gaming. Apple have taken a couple of gimmicky parlour tricks – immersive cinema and floating screens – and left out all the good stuff.

Oh, yeah, 3D films aren’t going to suck any less on an AR headset than they do on a big screen. Wake me up when I can be *in* the movie, Apple… Ohh yeah wait those already exist and we call them videogames!

Friday, June 9th, 2023, Blog.