In 1909, EM Forster penned a short story titled "The Machine Stops," depicting a future where humans lived isolated underground, connected only through screens. Fast forward to the present, and the Apple Vision Pro launch.
Whether it was an office worker checking with her team-mates whilst in a hotel room, or a father watching a video of a birthday party: Apple’s underlying message was that getting your Vision Pro on would - ultimately - be something you do alone (see also the fact that Tim Cook - nor any other Apple exec, was seen wearing one in public).
You can contrast this with Facebook’s vision for the metaverse as something inherently social. As Zuck said in reply: “every demo that they showed was a person sitting on a couch by themself. I mean, that could be the vision of the future of computing, but like, it’s not the one that I want."
This might look like a dispute around tech, pricing, and marketing, but this philosophical tension - do we put our headsets on together, or alone - means that Apple and Meta now not only offer two competing types of technology, but two competing visions of the world.
On the face of it, Meta’s world of shared online experiences looks like a generally happier future. And it seems that by giving into Apple’s vision, we’re consigning themselves to the world EM Forster created over a century ago. But I think Apple will win. And that we should welcome their victory.
First, Apple’s vision for VR works with, not against, the fundamentals of human nature.
We don’t like putting things on our face. And when we do, how it looks really matters. As Scott Galloway said recently: “there is no version of a headset or goggles that makes us seem more appealing. None.”
Lots of things change, but human feelings about attractiveness never will. Moreover, as the VR experience becomes more immersive, a sense of vulnerability emerges, meaning we naturally want to be in a private space, away from strangers.
Plus, donning a headset is inherently anti-social anyway. We’ve all felt the frustration of someone pulling out a phone mid-conversation. Imagine that x100. And when it comes to work, why on earth would you gather ten people in a conference room to just all put on your headsets?
So the instincts of most people already trend towards Zooming alone. And this positioning seems even more unassailable when you think about what the Vision Pro will transform the most: how we work.
In the words of Ben Thompson:
“I have been relatively optimistic about VR, in part because I believe the most compelling use case is for work. First, if a device actually makes someone more productive, it is far easier to justify the cost. Second, while it is a barrier to actually put on a headset — to go back to my VR/AR framing above, a headset is a destination device — work is a destination.
I agree with Ben.
In a world where work is default virtual, the office - in theory anyway - becomes a place you can go to wherever you are. But right now, you still need access to a lot of physical things (monitors, desks, chairs) in order to stay productive. The most important thing the Vision Pro does is radically change what a person needs to be able to work effectively.
You only need a quiet space, a comfortable sofa, and a great internet connection. This gets us past the great limitation of home working - that (unlike say, homes in Roman society) - the places we live simply aren’t up to the job.
So we’ll see even more time spent working in locations where you’re virtually - but not physically - connected with your colleagues.
Does that mean we’re sleepwalking towards dystopia? I think no.
Meta’s vision is of a Ready Player One style world where we not only work, but live, socialise, and share, all within virtual reality. In that world, the physical world becomes essentially redundant (and we can all just go and live in scrapyards).
But in Apple’s worldview - where virtual reality is purely an extension of one’s own private space - the physical world ends up becoming even more important. In this vision of the future, it’s what you get up to when the headset comes off that really matters.
This seems to me like it’ll be much more fun.
This is a world of cities filled with great physical spaces designed for socialising. Diverse, eclectic offices built specifically for teams to get together in person. And of homes where design and green spaces matter, instead of nondescript apartments in urban megacities designed solely for plugging in.
That’s why I’m team Apple. A world of solo VR is one in which we can - from time to time - put it back in its box. And that’s a good thing. I’m looking forward to having four 4k displays cast directly onto my retinas as much as the next guy - but I still think reality has some life in it yet.