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9 February 2024

Apple’s Vision Pro headset is a glimpse into our dorky future

They’re anti-social and creepy as hell. But the truly scary thing is the suspicion that none of that will matter.

By Jonn Elledge

I can’t have been more than seven when I saw Superman III, and nothing else about it stays with me, but the scene towards the end of the film, in which an evil supercomputer turns a woman into an unconvincing but murderous cyborg, was enough to give me nightmares for weeks. Yet that was merely my first exposure to a trope that’s all over the trashy sci-fi of the late 20th century, from Doctor Who’s Cybermen to Star Trek’s Borg: the idea that, one day, people might merge with their technology, until they shed their humanity altogether.

Such horrors have generally been presented as something that might be done to you – or, more problematically, something you might reluctantly choose, to aid with disability or survive environmental collapse. Gradually, though, it’s dawned on me that if humanity ever does go down the road of merging with technology, it won’t be evil robots that do it to us, but something we do to ourselves. And the results will be far lamer than you can possibly imagine.

Take the Apple Vision Pro headset, a pair of virtual reality goggles that “seamlessly blend digital content with your physical space”. (That’s what we all need in our lives, isn’t it? Ever-more inescapable digital content.) They enable you to navigate “simply by using your hands, eyes and voice”, and thus do “the things you love in ways never before possible”. We have never seen anything like this before, Apple claims, before concluding, with a combination of words that don’t currently mean anything but unnervingly soon might: “Welcome to the era of spatial computing.”

If you’re feeling tempted by all this glossy marketing spiel, however, then I’ve got some bad news. For starters, despite being spotted wrapped round early adopters’ faces in London, the Apple Vision Pro is not actually available to purchase in the UK. Customers in the US have been able to buy their own headsets since last week, but no UK launch date has yet been given. Given both the cool $3,499 (£2,775) price tag and the state of the UK economy these days, one must wonder if the tech-firm-cum-cult is making a statement here.

The other problem is that the era of spatial computing – the reality of seamlessly blending digital content and physical space, and navigating using your hands – turns out to be sitting about with a lump of plastic strapped to your face, while waving your arms about like you’re being attacked by a wasp. Those using this new-fangled kit look ridiculous. A video has already done the rounds on social media, in which a passenger on the New York subway unselfconsciously uses his headset while onlookers visibly gawp. It was impossible to tell whether he was playing Skyrim or updating a spreadsheet, but either way it seemed incredible he made it to the end, unmugged. Three thousand miles away, I felt a strange but unmistakable urge to give him a wedgie.

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He, at least, was “fully immersed”. For users who wish to communicate to passers-by that they are not, Apple has thoughtfully included a function named “Eyesight”, in which the headset will display an uncanny-valley version of your real eyes roughly where one might expect them to be. “Apple Vision Pro,” the marketing spiel continues, “helps you remain connected to those around you.” Quite right: sometimes, to really communicate with someone, you need to look at them with creepy electronic replacement eyes.

So: these new-fangled headsets cost a fortune. They make you look ridiculous. They are deeply anti-social, not to mention strange as hell. But the truly scary thing about the arrival of the virtual reality headset is the lingering suspicion that none of that will matter. Watching footage of the exciting things you can do with your Apple Vision Pro, I found myself thinking that some of the apps – the one offering real-time translation; the one that makes vacuum cleaning a game – look like they’d probably be genuinely useful. Fifteen years ago, the idea of staring at your phone in company, continuing a virtual conversation rather than focusing entirely on the people around you IRL, would have universally been thought anti-social and creepy, too. Today, we – I – do it all the time. The world has changed; too many of us accept our addiction.

The heavy-duty plastic headset may not be the device that does it, but spatial computing may be coming, nonetheless. The moment some company gets it all into a contact lens, we may all be going cyborg. And then the nightmares could really start.

[See also: On social media, books are trendy. Is reading?]

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