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One More Screen for Your Face



A man approaches his children in a dim room. They’re dipping wands into a dish of soap and blowing bubbles. He smiles and raises a finger to his brow, where a headset rests, covering his eyes. He taps a button to capture a video of the kids playing. He’ll be able to revisit it later on the couch, smiling at the memory, which is saved forever in brilliant 3-D.

This scripted scene is part of Apple’s pitch, made earlier today, for the future of personal computers. Not a laptop, not a smartphone: A $3,499 headset called the Apple Vision Pro. Like any number of virtual-reality headsets before it, it is a screen that you put on your face. When it’s released next year, it will allow you to interact with programs in 3-D space. Using your fingers and voice, you will be able to play games, type in front of a virtual monitor, interact with digital objects in your room, watch movies, and so on. The headset can fully enclose you in a virtual environment if you desire, but you’ll also be able to look at—and record—the world around you, thanks to a series of cameras built into the goggles that can pipe whatever is happening outside your body into a video feed in front of your eyes. The device is made to get between you and the world so that you can, in theory, live a better life.

This sort of thing is usually called “mixed reality.” The next model of the Quest headset by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, also offers such a feature, and for a lot less money too. Apple’s twist is something that happens outside the device: In addition to the screen positioned directly in front of your eyeballs, the Vision Pro also has a screen that faces outward, for the benefit of other people in the room. That screen displays a video of the top of your face—your eyes, mainly—when you’re looking “through” the goggles into the room. In press footage, actors carried on conversations with their friends without taking the headset off. On occasions when you choose to be fully immersed, a muddle of opaque colors will cover your face, signaling to others that you can’t see your environment.

Yes, just to make that clear: Apple has invented screen eyes. The look is disquietingly cyborg, but the selling point is clear. We live our lives in digital space but also outside of it. Picture the thin pane of glass between you and this article simply vanishing. This is, it seems, an attempt for Apple to have its cake and eat it too. You’ll wear a computer on your face, sure, but you can still exist in real life, talk to your family, kick a soccer ball. It’s a delicate tightrope walk: Apple needs its consumers to believe that they won’t be the nerds in a Quest, lost in the Metaverse—that the Vision Pro is cool, like the iPhone once was—while also selling the premise of full-screen immersion. You’re present enough in your home to interact with your children through the headset, but you’re also wearing a gadget that allows you to press a button and record “spatial video” from your point of view.

This tension is familiar. Years ago, when the smartphone was still novel, many people fretted over its presence at the dinner table. The device was a revolutionary, era-defining tool of human connection, but once it became part of all real-world interactions, it seemed to lure us into communicating with our real-life companions less in favor of engaging with our digital networks more. The sociologist Sherry Turkle defined the moment in the title of her 2011 book, Alone Together: The internet connects us and also separates us.


Apple has tried to bridge this gap for years. The Apple Watch encourages users to engage with the outside world by quantifying exercise and squeezing distracting interactions onto your wrist; “Screen Time” features limit your engagement with apps on the iPhone and iPad. At its core, however, the company is a purveyor of screens. The Vision Pro cannot escape this legacy. Alan Dye, the vice president of human-interface design at Apple, said during the product announcement that “you’re never isolated” in the headset. But he said something else too: With Apple Vision Pro, “it’s just you and your content.”

The Vision Pro may prove to be the greatest productivity and entertainment device ever made; it will be a while before we can play with it and know. Apple changed the marketing for the Watch once it was clear that health, rather than communication, was the device’s killer app; we can’t know for sure how the situation might eventually change as the Vision Pro is updated and more affordable versions become available. But for now, it seems to promise an extension of the status quo rather than a revolution. No matter the marketing, the headset is more screen. Forget the rectangle in your hand; imagine a website or video game that fills your living room or the noisy hull of your passenger jet. That has its own appeal, but it doesn’t escape the irony that the Vision Pro’s outward face will nevertheless turn us more inward. If it is the device that makes virtual and augmented reality click for more people, what will it have accomplished? Perhaps just that.

Source: The Atlantic

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