Tasty Vision, Pricey Byte | Thoughts on Apple Vision Pro

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This post is part of anΒ ongoing scrapbook series.


I wrote this post so I don’t have to respond to any more emails from folks about the new Apple Vision Pro headset.

Hardware

The device is a technical marvel.

It might just be the most advanced piece of consumer technology ever made. It’s easy to see why yesterday’s reveal had expedited the announcement of the Metaquest Pro to last weekend, and Microsoft’s HoloLens 3 is now delayed until next year. No device can touch the Vision Pro.

The best review I’ve seen so far today comes from Norm Chan on Tested. Its interesting that he re-iterated how Apple see’s this as an XR device rather than a VR headset. The whole experience being built around its stunning passthrough capabilities. The UX is projected out into the ‘real’ environment around you.

Language they used in the demo trailer was also interesting. The woman on the plane ‘dials back’ by blocking out the real world around her and replaces it with full VR graphics. Rob from Playlines has been using the metaphors ‘dialling back’ into full virtual and ‘dialling forward’ into unaugmented reality for years at this point.

Price

Critics have expressed concerns about the $3500 price tag, I’m indifferent.

The device squeezes Apple’s brand new M2 SOC architecture, 12 cameras inclusive of depth, passthrough LIDAR and SLAM cameras (all for an eighth of the price as a package as the rest of the market). 4K per eye micro OLED displays with a staggering 23 million pixelsβ€”three times more than the new Quest Pro. It also integrates eye tracking, environmental tracking, and Zeiss optical lenses. All for the low low price of $3500.

The cost for all this, aligns with a high-end laptop from Apple and some people buy them. Considering the specs and the pricing, I sort of think that Apple must be incurring a loss on this model right now. Device margin might get better if Apple incorporates 3D/depth cameras into their entire iPhone lineup. We might also expect multi-camera and depth camera capabilities in the upcoming desktop and laptop product refreshes too.

I’m very curious to see how the Q3 holds up for Apple. But given they ceased reporting iPhone sales in 2018, there’s a high chance they’ll maintain the same policy for the Vision Pro.

Many Apple fanboys in my feeds are drawing parallels between the Vision Pro and the first iPhone – creating a new market segment. But the first iPhone back in 2007 was frankly, fucking shit. So I don’t think this is the best comparison. Besides, the iPhone wasn’t β€˜inventing’ a product category, it was the bundling the iPod with a Phone so you only need to carry one device.Β 

Despite everything I’m about to go on to write about VR/XR etc. I just want to mention VR headsets and facial computing in general. It is in my ‘professional-weird-worlds-metaverse-tech-strategy-think-boi’ opinion that the market segment for VR headsets, especially now we have the Vision Pro, is for keeping ageing boomers quiet in old peoples homes. Meanwhile an underpaid care worker shakes up their Huel meal replacement drink. But that vision of the future is a whole different blog post.

I think to talk about the new Vision Pro, we need to talk about an earlier market segment.

Wearable Entertainment

In 1979, Sony introduced the first Walkman, which sold 385 million units until it was discontinued in 2009. Among these units, only 200 million were cassette players, while the rest were CD, Mini-Disc, and MP3 players. Apple in contrast, sells roughly 350 million iPhone units per year.Β The Walkman, despite its modest sales numbers, had a profound influence on culture.

When I was at University in the early 2000’s, The Walkman was a whole Topic we covered in Music and Culture. The cultural phenomenon – that walkman brought about just 20 years old at that point – of isolating yourself in your own auditory world in public was (and is) when looked at objectively .. weird and new.

Even my I own memories of being a teenager around the turn of the millennium confirm this. Listening to music with headphones out and about on the bus or the train was the behaviour of an obsessive. Fast forward two decades, and almost everyone is plugged into their individual auditory universes while navigating the cityscape. This massive shift was catalysed by Apple with the launch of the iPod in the early 2000s.

Apple iPod branding from 2001

These adverts were the main topic of discussion in my Music and Culture tutorials.

Culture was changing around us in real time. The ads were not just about selling iPods; they were about normalising the concept of wearing headphones in public.

I tweeted this thought earlier today and Matt Webb replied:

Totally. And the white headphones / multiple silhouettes meant that when you were in public, you identified (and could recognise others) in this tribe

The cult of Apple.Β 

Big World, Many windows

The Oculus Kickstarter campaign was launched in August of 2012, marking the beginning of a new era in immersive technology. According to Statista, by 2024, the cumulative number of VR headsets is expected to exceed 34 million, which is just 10% of the sales achieved by the Walkman in double the time.

Despite Apple’s high-end product launch, the VR (XR) headset market remains a specialised segment. I anticipate that a significant portion of Apple’s marketing budget will be allocated towards normalising wearing a facial computing device. They might need to move beyond zoom meetings as the killer app tho?? What is the white headphones marketing vision for the Vision Pro? Even with this super high end device the VR Headset market segment is a niche one.

I don’t think I’ve posted about this, but in my consulting work I’ve held the following position for years:

Worlds are big, VR is small

In the UK apparently, 40 per cent of the population, equating to 26.8 million people, watch live Premier League matches. However only 1.5 million people, mostly children, actively play football.

In other words, only 5% of people who watch football actually play it.

Let’s hang a lamp on this statistic and discuss another cultural trend:

For the month of May 2023, the ratio of live-streamers to viewers on twitch.com was 27.2 or about 3.6%.

This ratio is ‘sort of in the same stadium ‘ as people who watch football vs people who play it. A popular live streamer can play a game on stream, with 10,000 people watching.

I foresee that coordinative game modes vs cooperative (I have a draft post I need to finish on this from 2021!) where a single player is interacting and playing a game alongside their audience will become a built-in feature in a few games. All sorts of novel games and real time governance mechanics connecting real-time chat and virtual worlds are yet to be built! I want to help build them! Anyways, as time goes on, such experiences will become increasingly commonplace.

When it comes to VR headsets and their capability to interact with online worlds, I firmly believe we’ll see similar usage ratios to the ones discussed earlier. VR isn’t for everyone, but the stories and events in the worlds they give access to are.

There’ll be more people watching others immersed in VR worlds than people actually wearing the headsets themselves. A 5% ratio, akin to football, seems like a reasonable estimate. The audience for the possibilities that VR immersive experiences unlock far exceeds the size of the product category itself.

Last year I wrote about Dream SMP and pointed to something similar going on:

One streamer performing in Dream SMP might have say 50k people watching at any one time. But I’ve seen shock on media peoples faces when I tell them that ALL the roleplaying streamers might have more than 20k people watching. Meaning in total there could be 250k people watching the drama unfold from different points of view. Bigger audiences than live TV.

Just as it is for the 95% of the population who don’t play football, when walking in a park, a stray football might arrive in your direction – and you kick it back. Occasionally with VR/XR worlds you may want (or feel the need) to interact with a world directly.

You don’t need a 3.5k headset to do this now, and you won’t in future. Instead you’ll pull out your phone fire up a world browser and interact with the XR or VR world layer. Then log out when you’re done.

Worlds will have many windows.

Coding Worlds

Apple’s branding for the Vision Pro announcement was coding new worlds:

Apple Vision Pro WWDC23 Event branding

Worlds, both virtual and real, are undoubtedly the new medium of the 21st century. The initial branding and pitch to developers reflects this.

But the reality of these new worlds will look like is way more nuanced than simply saying Immersive worlds are the future. Rather everyone dedicating time and energy to participating in these worlds, they will also be observed from a distance, from the outside. Think Marvel’s MCU, Star Wars, etc, reading about events in Eve Online, or the popularity of RPG shows like critical role.

The Vision Pro seems to lay the groundwork for the future of facial computing, setting a standard for upcoming technologies. Yet, unless Apple is really ready to invest billions and billions of dollars to reshape cultural attitudes, convincing us to incorporate these devices into our daily lives, I can’t envision VR becoming a dominant product category.

As an aside, I think people who wear Apple AirPods look stupid as hell. I have no idea why people spend so much money on uncomfortable in ear headphones that make you look like you have cigarette’s tucked in your ears.

Then I remember that we’re 20 years deep into the cult of white Apple headphones…

My initial response to the Vision Pro’s price was to equate it to the cost of a brand new Fender Custom Shop ’62/’63 Stratocaster:

The comparison is fitting – both are high-end items that consumers will proudly keep in their homes. Both are windows to worlds.

Keep that idea in your head and fuse it with my earlier comments about audience sizes and participant ratios. A high end guitar is similar.

Some people own expensive things and keep them in their homes and barely use them. Some people use their expensive thing all the time, a smaller percentage use their expensive thing in front of small audiences, and a few exceptional people use their expensive thing in front of audiences of millions.

So it will be with the Vision Pro.

It’s not the headset that’s important it what windows, to what worlds, it opens up.

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