25 May 2023

Close-up of VR headset eyepieces

After years of increasingly concrete rumours, the tea leaves seem to be finally aligning on Apple announcing a virtual/augmented reality headset at their World-Wide Developer Conference in a couple of weeks. The consensus seems to be that the hardware will be very high end, significantly pushing the boundaries of the field, and have a price to match.

VR and it’s alphabetic stablemates have long been a fixture of fiction for me — I’ve read Gibson and Stephenson, watched The Matrix, and played Shadowrun, Cyberpunk and Dactyl Nightmare — but over the last few years they’ve become increasingly real. Last year, in order to try and get a handle on where this was going, I picked up a Meta Quest 2 to play around with.

My first impression was that they’d nailed the hardware; while there are undoubtedly areas where it could be improved, it does what it needs to do. A useful comparison would be the iPhone 4; while a modern iPhone is massively better in every respect, all the pieces were present and good enough to make the form factor work. The Quest 2 meets that bar, so while I imagine Apple’s entry will be nicer, there aren’t any fundamental gaps in capability that they need to fill. There is, however, one big question that Meta have so far left unanswered. Why would you want it?

Games would be one answer, and one that I and, I suspect, the vast majority of Quest owners, keep coming back to. However, it’s not historically been one of Apple’s strengths. Specifically, they seem to be either unable or unwilling to work with serious game developers (as opposed to those making mobile casinos) in a way that creates and sustains a healthy ecosystem. Games will certainly be created for the platform, but it would be surprising for Apple to be betting the house on them alone.

How about collaboration? Ben Thompson of Stratechery, is a big advocate of the sense of presence that comes from sharing a virtual space with someone, but has also pointed out that the expected high-price, low-volume first product makes this a hard sell. Even if you’re daft enough to spend $3000 on an unproven version 1 product, how many of your friends are? Here, Meta’s (relatively) cheap-and-cheerful offering has a significant advantage, and nevertheless they have so far failed to get much traction for the idea of socialising in the metaverse.

How about work? This is a field where cost is less of an obstacle, and niche products have more of a chance to establish themselves. Indeed, in my own neck of the woods of medical visualisation, I’ve seen a few impressive proofs of concept. However, nothing as yet has broken though to be a must-have. The fact that Microsoft, with its well regarded HoloLens technology, has chosen to get out of the space doesn’t suggest they have much confidence that it will take off any time soon.

How about something like the Sightful’s recently-announced “AR laptop”, with a headset simulating an enormous display in a portable package? This seems like an application with potentially broad appeal, and it’s certainly easier to envisage spending that price on something that replaces your MacBook as opposed to something that replaces your Switch. However, it also highlights the key weakness of headsets in general — in bringing you into a virtual world, they take you out of this one.

The problems are twofold. Firstly, the physically bulky hardware obscures exactly the part of your face that’s most key to interacting with other people. An Apple headset is likely to be somewhat sleeker that their competitors, but without an almost unprecedented leap past the current state of the art it will still present a massive barrier between you and those around you.

Less obvious, but more fundamental, than this physical barrier is the attention barrier. When using such a headset, your attention is wholly (VR) or partly (AR) elsewhere. Those around you know this, and this will fundamentally colour your interactions with them. The same could be said for laptops, phones and tablets (and, going back further, Walkmans, TV sets and novels), but with a fundamental difference — shared context.

If you’re dividing yourself between a companion and a screen, they can see that you’re doing so, and you can both modulate your interaction accordingly. Note that this doesn’t imply any primacy of the personal over the digital, but rather the ability to consciously and collaboratively balance the two. Perhaps you want to ask a colleague a question, but see that they’re doing something on their phone so hold off. They, in turn, notice you doing this, and pause their task at an appropriate point to turn their attention to you. This kind of natural, implicit negotiation is only possible if everyone in the same space is experiencing the same thing, and that’s exactly the assumption that VR and AR subvert.

In some cases, this kind of isolation might be acceptable, or even desirable. However, it significantly limits the contexts in which the platform can be used (in stark contrast to laptops, and especially phones, which can be used essentially anywhere). To counteract this, the advantages of the platform would need to be substantial — the fabled 10x improvement over doing things the old way. As of yet, nothing that compelling has emerged. Apple’s entry into the market will certainly liven things up, but they’ll have to launch something truly astonishing to accelerate adoption in a meaningful way. Apple (since 1997, at least) have focussed on broad appeal, and there doesn’t seem to be an opening for that in this case. Which leaves an obvious conclusion; they’re playing the long game.

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