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The Problem With The Goggles Of The Future Is Today

A man sitting in an Apple Store in Los Angeles demos the Apple Vision Pro with his hands held wide apart in a very silly way.
David Swanson/AFP via Getty Images

There is this familiar trope that always comes along in science fiction at the moment when someone explains to the audience how the sleek and gleaming future came into existence. Renewable energy sources, travel across galaxies, unimaginable computers, free and painless healthcare. The answer is always a little underwhelming: At some middle-distant point in time people got enlightenment, social ills were eradicated, societies came together and everything just kind of, well, works.

This has been on my mind a lot since the Apple Vision Pro was recently released into the wild after months of hype and speculation. It is a computer, but you wear it on your face. That is laughably simplistic, but also true. Apple promises the headset will welcome in an era of something called "spatial computing," combining the all-encompassing trappings of virtual reality with the uncanny physics of augmented reality, all crammed into a $3,500 snorkeling mask. It is already being called magical.

All the same, Apple has boasted you will be able to watch movies in something like your own personal IMAX, render memories in high definition and watch them on a loop in a quiet, darkened room. The Vision Pro will let you do work from any position (standing, squatting, supine) thanks to eye-tracking technology that lets you manipulate the apps that run your life, flailing and flicking and pinching your way through emails and spreadsheets and product designs. It is not just magic, as Greg Joswiak, a senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, told Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair:

“It feels like we’ve reached into the future and grabbed this product,” Joswiak said to me. “You’re putting the future on your face.”

It is all made possible by legions of designers and engineers who sacrificed god knows how many lifetimes to packing substantial computing power and visual fidelity into a set of goggles. Consider the amount of work that went into simply making it seem like you are looking through the Vision Pro into the world, rather than at tiny display screens sitting just beyond your eyes. As Nilay Patel writes in The Verge, "The two displays are tiny MicroOLEDs with a total of 23 million pixels that are just 7.5 micrometers in size, which is about the size of a red blood cell." It's an astonishing accomplishment, just one of many in a device that, simply by existing, wants to transform how humans use a computer. It is very possible the Apple Vision Pro represents a turning point in human invention. The bits and bobs and thinking that made these curious goggles could offer a bundle of technology that will shape our tomorrows in immeasurable ways.

But the problem with building the technology of the future is the living in today. Humans are base creatures, the tools themselves struggle to find purpose in the real world, and the companies who make promises of great invention are often greedy and banal.

The easiest confirmation of this exists in the flood of videos of influencers and self-proclaimed trendspotters twitching and scrolling and inviting a grisly and cartoonish death while sporting the Vision Pro in the natural world. Some are clearly staged. Some are just incredibly sad. Most are more difficult to parse, but the implication is all the same: Spectacle is one of the many associated costs with the headset. To a limited extent, there is nothing new about this: Shameless proselytizing is the base behavior of many tech sycophants, whether they're horny for a VR headset or a polygonal truck with a casual relationship to operating on the road.

But Apple's face computer invites performance from nearly all its users because it is impossible to simply "be normal" while it rests on your skull. This is the other inherent problem with the antecedents of some glorious future: They still need to do something of practical use in the right now. Which is to say, Google Glass didn't crash for Vision Pro to stumble. If the Vision Pro makes for a good prop, it might be because it is a confusing device with no real purpose at the moment. There are plenty of virtual reality headsets available right now, all cheaper than the Vision Pro. Virtual reality headsets make it clear they are for gaming, while tablet computers can be used in schools and hospitals or for ordering nachos at the airport bar. At the end of the day your smartphone is still a phone that happens to have a tiny computer inside. In this way the Vision Pro is a confusing device. The most dedicated early adopters are actively asking each other what the hell to do with this thing. Some are outraged it has yet to live up to promise of VR porn. If you were to ask an Apple employee if the device is meant for productivity or entertainment, they would answer "yes."

Which brings us to the final problem with technology that promises to change the future: the companies behind it all. If Apple is boasting about the possibilities the Vision Pro unlocks, it's due in part to the company's role in changing the way we listen to music in the world, transforming our computers from hulking immovable blocks to sleek and accessible toys, and turning our phones into, well, the first two things mentioned above.

Companies like Apple, or Meta, or Tesla, indulge in the language of futurism because inspiration and invention are powerful motivators, whether you are building widgets or selling them. Saying you are building something for the benefit of all of mankind has a nice ring to it. But making a face computer or a self-driving car, or promising a Delta Comfort+ experience among the stars, is not inherently altruistic.

The companies at the helm of these innovations are often dull and unrepentant capitalists. Their rush to meet the world of tomorrow is tempered by the strangling desire to be credited for leading us down the path to utopia, even, or often, at the expense of plundering rarer and rarer materials from an already hollowed-out planet or condemning human drivers to the "acceptable losses" column in the race for self-driving cars.

Apple's idea of the future, at least as we can discern from the Vision Pro, is one made for exclusion and isolation. With a retail price that could easily cover rent or a mortgage, the Vision Pro comes with a steep barrier to entry. But even in buying it, what is the overall experience? Nothing but hollow imaginings meant to augment reality through a laminated veil of glass and sensors. All that it asks of us in exchange for that experience is to take a further step towards isolation, into a life that is increasingly oriented around the demands and capabilities of our gadgets, which are born not out of inspiration or invention, but the ability to strip resources from the earth on a grand scale and a desire to fill a new product category.

Maybe the problem is human innovation being married to the machines of capitalism. Right now the biggest achievements we've made to reach tomorrow could also be classified as escapism for the ruling class: weird headsets, AI expanding its reach into human work, exploding rockets and imploding submersibles.

A moment like this may earn a mention in some future earthling's monologue about how society eventually arrived where it did, but it probably won't be a happy speech.

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