Technology: Apple’s New Mixed-Reality ‘Vision Pro’ Headset Is Designed To Isolate & Control You

Dressed in his iconic turtleneck, Steve Jobs began his 2007 Apple keynote, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” Since then, Jobs and Tim Cook have repeatedly hailed their products as “magical.”

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onday’s Apple keynote followed the established pattern. All the products we are familiar with were given an upgrade. I can’t remember the number of times Apple has told us the newest software update will run three, four—nay—five times faster than older systems. And then, when it seems that everything has new insides and outsides, Tim walks onto stage, pauses and says, “There’s one more thing.”

So it was again yesterday, when Apple announced their own augmented reality headset, Apple Vision. For all the times that Apple products have failed to launch, Apple has still created whole ecosystems in which coders, game developers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists have won and lost fortunes. The release of a product like Apple Vision promises to create another economy of app-creators and businesses to manufacture all manner of new experiences.

Along with its enormous financial reservoir—hovering next to a three-trillion-dollar valuation—Apple has near perfect control at every level of development. For all its mistakes in the last twenty years, the tech consumer still looks to Apple for gadgets like fashionistas look to Fashion Week. If Facebook-Meta designs a virtual reality headset, it may be cool, if a little glitchy, but that “cool” factor only attracts so many. Apple sets trends.

This week Apple unveiled the next big thing in tech: Vision Pro, a $3,500 headset that heralds the “era of spatial computing … where digital content blends seamlessly with your physical space.”

This isn’t quite the same as virtual reality, which blocks out the real world and swaps in a virtual one. Vision Pro is basically a set of digital goggles that work as a “mixed-reality” platform, allowing users to see and hear the physical world even as they interact and manipulate digital content in front of them.

Apple is putting all its clout into this idea of “spatial computing,” which the company has been reportedly working on for years. Announcing the new product, chief executive Tim Cook compared it to the way the iPhone introduced the concept of mobile computing. “It’s the first product you look through, and not at,” he said. “You can see, hear, and act with digital content just like it’s in your physical space. You’re no longer limited by a display.”

That’s almost true. In fact, you’re still looking at a display, it’s just a display of the real world, a digital projection of reality. The headset’s cameras capture the world and display it on two small digital screens directly in front of your eyes. So users aren’t really looking through the headset at the world, they’re looking at a digital recreation of the world around them. The world you see through the headset might seem real, but it isn’t.

The trust of the mainstream consumer depends on many things: Will the item last? Will it live up to the hype? And, among the most important for tech products, will others buy into it along with me? Augmented reality remains a novelty, a strange headset, until stamped with the Apple seal of acceptability—and look at how sleek and hi-techy it looks on your face. No one wants to wear a Facebook-designed thing on their head. But we already wear Apple products on our ears and wrists.

With the power of Apple to induce acceptability, it is more than a little possible now that these headsets will become a familiar sight in offices, coffee shops, living rooms, and college campuses, their specs melded on the faces of office workers, college freshmen, family members, school children. More probable, but not necessary.

Apple calls it “the most advanced personal electronics device ever,” which is true in more ways than one, especially the “personal” aspect. Put bluntly, Vision Pro appears to be nothing so much as an incredibly powerful isolation device — a means of immersing yourself in a sea of digital content in a way that physically cuts you off from other people and the real world.

That is to say, Vision Pro is precisely the kind of technology that will exponentially increase the isolation and immiseration of everyone who uses it. It’s been obvious for years now that the proliferation of digital tech is creating a populace that’s addicted to smartphones, porn, and social media — and doing so in a social environment of ever-increasing isolation, anxiety, depression, deracination, and collapsing community. Whatever benefits there are to digital tech, it’s not at all clear they outweigh the heavy human costs.

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The introduction video for Vision Pro unintentionally highlights these costs. It features various people wearing and using the headset. All of them are indoors, and with the exception of a single, brief, real-world interaction, all of them are all alone.

But even then, the real-world exchange doesn’t convey what Apple wished — quite the opposite, in fact. In a rather farcical scene, a woman sits on a couch wearing the headset and watching a video, and another woman walks in. The voiceover says, “Foundational to Vision Pro is that you’re not isolated from other people. When someone else is in the room, you can see them and they can see you.” But that’s clearly not true, as the goggles obscure most of the woman’s face, even as the pair talk and laugh.

It’s obvious, even from the promotional clip, that that kind of interaction, in which someone wearing the headset talks to someone else physically present in the room with them, is the last thing Apple’s designers and engineers had in mind when designing this. The entire purpose, it seems, is to throttle such real-world interactions.

In another scene, we see a man sitting alone in a dark house, watching video clips of his daughters playing and blowing out birthday candles. The voiceover tells us that Vision Pro is Apple’s first three-dimensional camera and “lets you capture and relive your memories in 3D with spatial audio.”

That means this father was awkwardly wearing the headset when he recorded the clips he’s now watching, alone, in a darkened house. Are we to assume that capturing memories so you can relive them later, “in 3D with spatial audio,” means wearing creepy, face-obscuring goggles to your kid’s birthday party?

And why depict this father alone in a dark house? Where is his family? Ben Thompson, a tech commentator otherwise effusive in his praise of the headset, said, “I’ll be honest: what this looked like to me was a divorced dad, alone at home with his Vision Pro, perhaps because his wife was irritated at the extent to which he got lost in his own virtual experience.” Exactly right.

Aside from the isolating effects of such technology is its invasiveness. Sterling Crispin, an engineer who spent years working on foundational elements of Vision Pro, explained on Twitter that much of his work “involved detecting the mental state of users based on data from their body and brain when they were in immersive experiences,” what he called “basically mind reading.”

So, a user is in a mixed reality or virtual reality experience, and AI models are trying to predict if he is feeling curious, mind wandering, scared, paying attention, remembering a past experience, or some other cognitive state. And these may be inferred through measurements like eye tracking, electrical activity in the brain, heartbeats and rhythms, muscle activity, blood density in the brain, blood pressure, skin conductance, and more.

He adds there were “a lot of tricks involved to make specific predictions possible,” like monitoring eye behavior to anticipate when a user was going to click on something, or “quickly flashing visuals or sounds to a user in ways they may not perceive, and then measuring their reaction to it.”

What Crispin is describing, albeit not in these terms, is a concerted effort to monitor, manipulate, and potentially control the user, all under the guise of “predicting” his behavior. It’s not hard to imagine a near future in which AI is able to translate monitored brain activity and other biometrics into images. A user could be wearing an Apple headset that’s continuously transmitting brainwaves and images and thoughts to the cloud, where corporations could mine them for profit and government censors could monitor them for wrongthink.

This already happens now, so why would it not happen with even more powerful technology? Worse, these recorded thoughts and images could be archived the way phone and email records are now, under federal surveillance laws. We’re talking about a permanent digital record of your inmost thoughts, recorded and archived by the world’s most powerful corporations and accessible by government agencies whenever they want.

The blunt reality about Apple’s new “mixed-reality” platform, then, is that it’s designed to increase the soul-crushing isolation and loneliness of modern life while amplifying the ability of Big Tech — and hence, government — to exert control over us. The vision of the future offered by Apple is one of solitary men and women sitting alone in the darkened rooms of empty houses, their faces hidden behind shining black masks, reliving “memories” that were digitally mediated to begin with.

The age we live in has proven an eagerness for control. Our political systems—both public and private—do not have human flourishing in mind. Their presiding political philosophy is Progress. The tools borne out of this ideology bear its mark. They can have little to no downsides; they do not admit of reflection; they promise greater control of man over nature, including his own. It is this regime that demands our allegiance with the sweetest of promises and the most enticing of treats.

It’s a profoundly anti-human vision and we should resist it with all our strength.✪

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