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I want Apple's Vision Pro
Apple's spatial computing headset has a very appealing use case: "the workspace of your dreams"
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I’m back after a short break. While I was travelling, Apple announced its Vision Pro headset and today I will be sharing my thoughts on the $3,500 device.
Also this week:
Why Spanish music dominates charts
Instant Pot declares bankruptcy
And some fire memes (including a fitness hack)
Albert Einstein died in 1955.
Life Magazine was there to capture the most iconic photos of his last day. However, it wasn’t of the genius physicist. It was a photo of Einstein’s desk at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
The desk was messy, cluttered and chaotic.
I love it.
My current desk space is extremely organized and small, neither is by choice. My wife likes things neat and my 5-year old son has evicted me from nearly all the good work real estate in our home.
While I understand why people like minimalist work spaces, it is just not for me.
One of the many quotes often misattributed to Einstein is “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what is an empty desk a sign?”
That sentiment is a bit harsh. Canadian designer Bruce Mau delivers a similar message in a nicer manner: “Don’t clean your desk, you might find something in the morning that you can’t see tonight.”
What is the point of all this desk talk?
It is my self-justification for buying a Vision Pro, Apple’s spatial computing headset that is set for a Q1 2024 release and is priced at (good lord) $3,500.
I am not saying this as an Apple fanatic who buys any new product it makes. My devices — iPhone, Watch, AirPods — are all four generations old while I work on a 2014 MacBook Air (the Toyota Corollas of laptops in terms of durability).
However, after watching Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC23), I am officially drinking the Vision Pro Kool-Aid. In fact, I am chugging it.
Call me sucker. I don’t care.
Before I explain my rationale, here are some notes on the device:
VisionOS: Vision Pro has its own operating system and Apple is positioning VisionOS as the next computing platform. The headset allows you to use all your favorite existing Apple apps overlaid on a near-perfect digital re-creation of the environment around you. The company is referring to it as “spatial computing” (not VR, not AR, and definitely not metaverse). The computing breakthrough is that you navigate with your eyesight (instead of a mouse or a touchscreen) and interact with finger gestures (instead of clicks or taps).
Pricey AF: At $3,500, the Vision Pro is about 7x more expensive than the most popular VR headset model from Meta. It is clear that the two companies are targeting different markets. The first version of Vision Pro is for the earliest adopters (Apple recently revised the first-year headset sales estimates from 3 million to 900,000). On the other hand, Meta has sold 20m Quest units, playing a role similar to Android in the mobile phone market (lower price but higher volume).
The hardware is insane: Apple may have invested up to $50B in R&D for the Vision Pro and the specs show. There are two postage stamp-sized eye displays with better resolution than a 4K TV. It also has a powerful Mac desktop M2 processor, six microphones as well as 17 cameras and sensors to perfectly track your hand movements.
Controlled 30-minute demos have impressed: Ben Thompson writes “the hardware and experience were better than I thought possible, and the potential for Vision is larger than I anticipated.” Marques Brownlee says that the device’s eye-tracking is “surreal” and the closest thing he’s “experienced to magic”.
You will probably look goofy wearing it: The headset is long and weighs one pound. A fitting comparison has been “high-tech ski goggles”. Notably, Tim Cook — and other key Apple execs — never put the headset on. Why? Almost certainly to avoid being meme’d like Mark Zuckerberg was with Meta VR or Google founders were when they released Google Glass (“Glassholes” is one of the most devastating tech put downs ever).
A dystopian vision? Critics of the Vision Pro note that many of its use cases look pretty depressing. In the demo video, users were often alone in a room consuming content through the headset. The most social sequence was at a child’s birthday party, where a father is recording videos while wearing the headset (instead of … you know… actually hanging with his child in real life). The Vision Pro’s most social hardware feature is an external display called EyeSight, which projects the user’s eyes to let outsiders know they are present; however, it looks somewhat creepy and has mercilessly roasted by internet memes.
After seeing the Vision Pro presentation, Zuckerberg highlighted the anti-social element:
“More importantly, [Meta’s] vision for the metaverse and presence is fundamentally social. It’s about people interacting in new ways and feeling closer in new ways. Our device is also about being active and doing things. By contrast, every demo that [Apple] 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.”
I agree that parts of the Vision Pro demo had a Black Mirror-esque feel.
However, I want to focus on something that Zuckerberg has previously said about Project Cambria, Meta’s premium VR model. He believes that the headset will “eventually [replace] your laptop or work setup.”
When considering the launch version of the Vision Pro, social features are a secondary concern.
What comes first? Work and productivity.
Don’t take my word for it. Here is how Apple orders the main use cases on the Vision Pro website:
Work (“free your desktop and the apps will follow”)
Entertainment (“the ultimate theater where you are”)
Social (“Get on the same page and in the same space”).
On the work part, the site copy reads “arrange apps anywhere and scale them to the perfect size, making the workspace of your dreams a reality.”
I repeat: making the workspace of your dreams a reality.
Anecdotally, having an extra external monitor for my 2014
Toyota Corolla MacBook Air has made me happier and more productive. That is just a single extra screen. The Vision Pro will allow you to create a giant personalized workspace.
You can wear it for a few productive hours a day — just like with a laptop now — and then get on with your life. That sounds like a killer app to me.
Meta’s virtual workspace has never tickled my fancy and the reason is pretty simple:
Apple’s spatial computing is way more visually appealing than Meta’s metaverse, and you know the iPhone-maker will deliver a more unified experience. Furthermore, the Vision Pro’s high-resolution 4K displays make reading “crisp” and the device has very low-latency (higher latency can cause nausea and limit how long someone can wear the headset).
Also, that dream workspace isn't taking up physical space and travels easily.
The Vision Pro’s work-related use case was articulated well by former Apple engineer Andy Matuschak, who wrote a blog on WWDC23.
In one section, he highlights a photo of Stewart Brand’s office, which is covered with photos and note cards. Matuschak refers to it as a “huge, persistent infospace” and writes:
It’s a common trope among writers: both to “pickle” yourself in the base material and to spread printed manuscript drafts across every available surface. I’d love to work like this every day, but my “office” is a tiny corner of my bedroom. I don’t have room for this kind of infospace, and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to leave it up overnight in my bedroom.
[…] And unlike the physical version, a virtual infospace could contend with much more material than could actually fit in my field of view, because the computational medium affords dynamic filtering, searching, and navigation interactions…And you could swap between persistent room-scale infospaces for different projects.
While Matuschak doesn’t think the current VisionOS can handle such infospaces, he said there is “tremendous potential” for Vision Pro to fulfill this…err…vision.
Sure, “desk minimalists” will enjoy the Vision Pro but “desk maximalists” will be on Cloud 9.
Could it lead to new creative unlocks? I think so.
Let me explain by referencing a study from the University of Minnesota in 2013, when researchers devised an experiment to see how workspace cleanliness affected creativity. The researchers put one group of students in a messy room and one in a clean room. The outcome: both groups generated the same number of ideas but the ideas from the messy group “were rated as more interesting and creative”.
One conclusion was that clean environments led students to do what was expected of them while messier environments “[stimulated] a release from conventionality”.
I am not suggesting that anyone who throws virtual papers around a Vision Pro workspace will become Einstein, but having objects of interest spread out — instead of neatly put away — allows for more disparate connections to be made. The Vision Pro lets you create the ideal work environment anywhere and anytime (without any arguments about space with your significant other).
In the same way that the introduction of multitouch with the iPhone removed a layer of conceptual abstraction — instead of touching a mouse or trackpad to move an on-screen pointer to an object on screen, you simply touch the object on screen — VisionOS removes a layer of abstraction spatially.
Using a Mac, you are in a physical place, there is a display in front of you in that place, and on that display are application windows. Using VisionOS, there are just application windows in the physical place in which you are. On Monday, I had Safari and Messages and Photos open, side by side, each in a window that seemed the size of a movie poster — that is to say, each app in a window that appeared larger than any actual computer display I’ve ever used. All side by side. Some of the videos in Apple’s Newsroom post introducing Vision Pro illustrate this. But seeing a picture of an actor in this environment doesn’t do justice to experiencing it firsthand, because a photo showing this environment itself has defined rectangular borders.
This is not confusing or complex, but it feels profound. Last night I chatted with a friend who, I found out only then, has been using Vision Pro for months inside Apple. While talking about this “your real world room is your canvas for arranging your application windows” aspect of the experience, he said that he spent weeks feeling a bit constrained, keeping his open VisionOS windows all in front of him as though on a virtual display, before a colleague opened his mind to spreading out and making applications windows much larger and arranging them in a wider carousel not merely in front of him but around him. The constraints of even the largest physical display simply do not exist with VisionOS.
The Vision Pro also has the potential to fulfill one major benefit long touted by mixed reality enthusiasts: embodied cognition, the idea that humans learn best when the body — not just the mind — is engaged.
More than any competing product, Apple’s spatial computing looks like the most attractive way to manipulate any number of 3-dimensional environments. Included among the 5,000 patents for the Vision Pro is one for “delivering phenomenon-based thinking experiences in science classes”. This feature makes the invisible the visible. Instead of just reading about Wifi signals or radiation, you can see them and physically interact with them in the Vision Pro space (not to mention Apple’s spatial audio tech: if a pin drops 15 feet from you, it will sound 15 feet away).
A related idea that excites me is the memory palace. Dating back to Ancient Greece, people have enhanced their memory and information recall — whether for speeches, to-do lists, random knowledge accumulation — by visualizing items in familiar physical spaces. This method is used widely in memorization contests and the participants achieve some insane feets (e.g. memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards in minutes). The memory palace method works because spatial memory is extremely effective.
With the Vision Pro, you can build countless memory palaces and actually visualize them. Again, anywhere and anytime.
We are years away from the “huge persistent infospaces” and true embodied cognition. Without those, the Vision Pro's potential is less compelling.
Benedict Evans has a great take on this topic in a worthwhile read:
"I’m also unconvinced by the idea that the future of productivity software is more and bigger screens. I don’t think the future of financial analysis is seeing more columns at once in Excel - I think the future is an AI system that makes the model for you. More abstraction, not bigger screens."
For mass adoption, the Vision Pro needs to deliver on the work use case and improve across many dimensions: weight, battery life (currently 2 hours), a sleeker battery pack, less ski goggle-ish and obviously price.
Apple will drive down costs and is already targeting a cheaper headset for end-2025. Aside from the hardware, it is worth noting that the Vision Pro has a huge head start in terms of software compared to its competitors. The device will sync with your existing Apple products (iPhone, iPad, Mac, Cloud). Furthermore, the company has a framework for developers to port over iOS and iPadOS apps to VisionOS, which means the headset will launch with over 100,000+ apps ready to go.
This does not even take into account the native VisionOS apps that developers are surely working on right now: games, films, wellness and live sports (the experience is supposed to be incredible and Apple has a deal with MLS, which is bringing Messi onboard1). And if we’re being honest, there will probably be a lot of something that starts with “p” and rhymes with “corn”.
If Vision Pro nails the feature sets it laid out, I don't think it's unreasonable to see it displace the Mac and iPad lines within a decade (combined, these two verticals made $60B last year, or around 20% of Apple’s sales). The majority of those use cases are in a home, office or travelling.
The WWDC23 demo video never showed "people walking around with the headset on" and that is probably not its destiny. Unless the headset gets Ray-Ban thin, the look is too antisocial and the design is too immobile to match the utility of an iPhone. But it was always unreasonable to expect the Vision Pro to replace the iPhone (which is literally with us 12 hours a day). Nothing ever will. It is the greatest consumer product ever made. Over 2 billion units sold and $1 trillion in total revenue.
Also, don't forget the iPhone's early struggles when it launched in 2007. There was no App Store. It was clunky. Had no 3G. The camera was ancient by today’s standards. Within a few months of its release, Apple dropped the price and gave a $100 credit to its earliest adopters who felt they had overpaid.
What was the iPhone’s killer app at launch? It was a better phone call experience (scrollable contact list, visible voice mail). Then native mobile experiences arrived (maps, Uber, Instagram, the ability to order a $35 bean burrito on DoorDash for no reason). Then over a decade of dominance.
Ultimately, the launch version of Vision Pro is for creating the “workspace of your dreams”. And if this turns out to be the first mass adoption use case, it would be fitting. Why? Because you know who is another member of the messy infospace hall-of-fame: Steve Jobs.
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Links and Memes
Spanish songs dominate streaming…with at least half of the top Spotify and YouTube Music tracks from Spanish artists in any given week (Bad Bunny, Peso Pluma, Eslabon Armado, Yng Lvcas, Shakira). It’s not just music, either: 6 of the most 10 streamed non-English Netflix shows in May are in Spanish.
Latin America is very internet native: Over 500m people have mobile phones in the region. Meanwhile, Argentines, Brazilians, Colombians and Mexicans spend 3.5 hours a day online (an hour more than the global average).
Cross-border guest features: Latin America is not a monoculture, so when the artists — whether from Spain (Rosalia), Puerto Rico (Bad Bunny) or Mexico (Peso Pluma) — collaborate with other Spanish-speaking artists, it broadens appeal.
Cultural cache in the USA: Hispanics make up 20% of the US population (63m) and have been responsible for 52% of the country’s population growth since 2010. This has led to the popularity of these artists amongst Spanish-speaking US citizens, which is now spreading to their non-Spanish speaking friends.
We should also tip our hats to my home country of Canada, which helped to crank out two huge Spanish hits: 1) Canadian Drake (actually singing in Spanish) and Bad Bunny (“MIA”); and 2) Canadian Justin Bieber with Luis Fonsi (“Despacito”).
Instant Pot’s parent firm declares bankruptcy. The brand was bought by a private equity firm in 2019. After a brief COVID cook-from-home boost, sales went from $758m in 2020 to $344m in 2022. I love my Instant Pot but it’s only a once-a-decade purchase. The PE owner tried to milk the brand with ridiculous product extensions like a coffee maker, toaster oven and air purifier.
It’s an unfortunate end for a great origin story. Instant Pot was invented by a Chinese-Canadian named Robert Wang, who was laid off from a telecom job in 2008 and decided to create a product to solve a pain point he and wife had while they both worked full-time (it was hard to cook healthy family food). CNBC tells the story of how Wang ultimately spent 18 months and $300k to bring product to market and it became a huge cult hit in the 2010s.
Some other baller links:
Legendary writer Cormac McCarthy died at 89. Ted Gioia wrote a great piece on McCarthy’s career (“The Final Triumph of Cormac McCarthy”) and here is a YouTube video breaking down the Coen Brothers film No Country For Old Men, adapted from McCarthy’s book (“Why THIS Was One Of The Most Terrifying Scenes In Film History”)
13 really good car ads…from a George Mack Twitter thread.
Thousands of Reddit pages went private in protest of pricing changes around that platform’s API. The Defector has a good explainer titled “The Last Page of the Internet” (and Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman explains the business rationale behind the platform changes).
…and here some them fire tweets.
Finally, if you are really jones-ing for the Vision Pro memes, here is a mini-thread of them (just keep scrolling through it):