Credit: Timothy R. Butler/Wikimedia/W.carter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Some Visions Aren't Worth Having

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:20 PM

I watch Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote every year like people watch the Superbowl — snacks, celebratory anticipation, the works. The greatest ones over the years remain memorable long after, conveying master showmanship and a clarity of vision for technology that makes life better. Ironically, while introducing a device called Vision Pro, this year’s conference felt like an aimless stumble towards dystopia.

I’m hardly an Apple naysayer. I’ve owned a variety of Macs, iPhones, iPads, iPods and the like for two decades now. While for integrity’s sake I should note, as we always seek to disclose on OFB’s pages, that I bought Apple stock years ago precisely because I appreciate their vision, no one will read this column and think I’m trying to help boost AAPL today. I feel disturbed and uneasy with Apple’s vision for our future, not excited.

At its best, WWDC has been where Apple skated to “where the puck is going,” to use the Wayne Gretzky quote Steve Jobs loved to muse on. Jobs earned his reputation as a visionary technology leader by painting pictures of how technology could make life tangibly better, pictures that captivated millions of people.

(And unlike when, say, Bill Gates tried to do the same, he painted with a palette of technology presently available and directed to goals that made sense. Not lofty but impractical concepts or the faux-needs my colleague Dennis E. Powell discusses today.)

Jobs scathing critique of its previous chipmaking partners and insightful focus on power efficiency during the 2005 conference that began Apple’s then stunning transition to Intel chips perfectly laid out a path to powerful mobile computing before most people even saw the puck going that way. His focus on performance per watt over gross power was, and remains, prescient.

Fifteen years later, Tim Cook’s Apple essentially doubled down on that message in the long anticipated announcement that Apple would move to its own processors. Contrary to so much in 2020, WWDC that year felt like a much needed pep talk as Apple gloried in its abilities to do something spectacular despite the circumstances.

If 2020 was the year Apple said, “Look, we can do amazing things with technology even when things are bad,” this year felt more like Apple trying to live out Frankenstein.

Excuse me as I grumble for a moment on this year’s near misses before I get to that. The point of the Worldwide Developers Conference is to preview new “platform” technology a few months before it ships so that when the rest of us get that new iPhone or Mac, we have stuff we can run on it courtesy of said developers.

This year’s platform updates appeared largely modest. There are several nice additions they showed off, like live voicemail transcription that lets you pick up a call if you realize it is urgent and better search capabilities for the vast text message archives most of us now have. Nice updates yes, but visionary… not so much.

Given Apple’s lead on designing powerful, graphics friendly, power efficient processors — and its mobile gaming strength — tools to help developers bring more games to Mac more quickly seemed like a promising direction, too. Though anything visionary, like realizing the Apple TV would make a fantastic game console, and better entertainment and home hub, if Apple would just care about it a bit more, were markedly absent.

Ditto, there was very little innovation in machine learning/AI. There was a time when Apple was visionary in this realm, entering in long before most and pioneering a variety of useful concepts, including the first meaningful digital assistant in Siri. The puck is clearly speeding towards an AI goal and Apple as good as ignored the computing inflection point of the decade, if not the century.

How is the company that started the trend of building specialized AI processors into its hardware not focusing on casting vision about machine learning? Charitably, perhaps Apple is doing its classic “wait until we have something better” approach. Uncharitably, Apple has had its head stuck too much in its Vision Pro to see where things are really going.

A better keyboard auto correction using machine learning? Great. The ability to find photos of a specific pet? Nice. But, while Microsoft, Google and the like press ahead with “generative” AI that can summarize information, create artwork and the like, Apple is a no show. We need privacy focused, locally run, top-tier AI to counter the centralized options others are putting forward that could easily invade our lives and privacy at a disturbing scale.

A compelling vision of harnessing this new technology for good and doing so in the sort of privacy first way Apple has made a core tenet of its brand would be a fantastic vision. A way of Apple standing against the most troubling aspects of a technology by painting a human, safer, better path. A pro vision.

Instead, we got the Vision Pro.

The headset is an impressive technological feat. Early previewers spoke of how well it worked at fulfilling its promised abilities. But do we really want what it promises?

Yes, it looks cool to see windows being manipulated in a “real world” space like Apple demonstrated, turning the whole room into one’s computer “desktop,” but does it help us in a meaningful way? I can’t shake the sense it is the cursed progeny of Sun’s two decade old Project Looking Glass and Microsoft Bob.

For most of the demonstrations, whether with productivity apps or entertainment, all the Vision Pro did was create virtual “screens” inside its simulation of the real world. The demos of people watching movies still had them sitting there staring at a rectangle, just a virtual one imposed on that forged view of the room they could see with their own eyes if they took the device off.

Even the game demos came off that way; little was said of VR-style immersion or even meaningful augmented reality, where virtual objects appear to be in real spaces. Most of the wonder seemed devoted to simulating television screens. “Look, you can have a fake 100” screen in this fake version of your real room” is what the demos screamed, even if the presenters acted like what they were showing was far more.

I found myself thinking: even if I grant for a moment everything else about this device seems like a good idea (I agree with Dennis it isn’t), is there anything gained after the initial amusement by visualizing virtual 2D screens within a virtual reality version of my room? The device’s M2 processor is the same sort going in Apple’s low-end computers today. It’s incredibly impressive and capable, so that’s not a criticism per se, but the same $3,500 spent on one of the newly announced Mac Studios sure would provide a lot more computing power.

I could critique that end of things all day, but my main reason for being disturbed by virtual TVs in simulated rooms isn’t wasted computing power. I tremble at the future that Apple put forward in which that’s allegedly what we want.

Does a substantial portion of the population really want to spend their days with their heads inside a box that tries to make them feel like they aren’t inside a box?

I have to say I’m thankful that so far people seem to indicate they don’t want that future. Google Glass offered a much better attempt at augmented reality: it overlayed information on a lens that was transparent, so the real world was still in view. Glass floundered and ultimately was canceled, but I do not think it was because people said, “I like this idea, I just wish the device covered my eyes completely so I could only see a screen portraying the world around me rather than the real world.”

Apple essentially jumped from the (useful) augmented reality it has been developing on the iPhone for years — virtually placing furniture in a room, measuring physical spaces using the phone camera and so on — to “virtual reality.” The company was careful to avoid that term, surely keeping in mind its long string of failures. The not-illustrious line goes from the first Nintendo Virtual Boy in the 1990’s through the latest Meta (nee Facebook) headsets and their much trumpeted “metaverse” of virtual meetings and socialization.

That the Vision Pro can choose to show you a realistic recreation of your surrounding physical space doesn’t change what it is. But its approach disturbs me at a level its forerunners did not.

VR gaming or even virtual “metaverse” meetings have limits: you put on the device to explore a virtual world, then take it off and return to the real world. Apple instead is pushing the idea of a device you keep on a significant portion of life (though how you do so with an anemic battery that cannot even last through a typical feature length movie, I’m not sure).

While isolating one’s self in VR always made me feel a bit uneasy, existing for work and play in such a place sounds incredibly sad. That virtual TV screen? Sure, it might be bigger than your budget and home can support, but only you can see it — forget family movie nights.

Apple did show how the device gives you a view of people around you in the real world, and its creepy fake eye view on the outside so people feel like they can see you, but do we really want to see mere representations of our loved ones rather than the real thing? Imagine a family affluent enough to have a Vision Pro for each family member (after all, it replaced the family TV, right?); not only would you not directly see your loved ones, but now even the Vision Pro’s view is simply of others’ fake Vision Pro projected eyes.

Apple conspicuously avoided showing multiple people wearing Vision Pros in a room together or multiple people even FaceTiming together while wearing them. Uncanny as it may be to see one person cooped up inside a headset, a family sitting near each other but worlds apart is the Matrix, not a heartwarming Hallmark scene.

Perhaps one of the Vision Pro’s best features is its ability to take 3D pictures, but that implies wearing it during the sorts of significant moments where one would want such pictures. (And no one else following suit unless you want a heartwarming 3D picture of everyone lost in their own virtual worlds.)

The closing commercial of the presentation drives home the dystopian future Apple is painting: a dad cannot even be bothered to take off his Vision Pro to see his daughter in real life.

Is this where the puck is going? I sure don’t think so and, for all our sakes’, I hope I’m right on that.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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