And for at least 10 years, those companies have been wrong.
Silicon Valley has collectively spent at least tens of billions of dollars developing devices like the $3,499 Vision Pro that Apple introduced on Monday and Meta’s line of virtual reality goggles called Quest. And face computers are still not a thing.
Last year, Americans bought more TV antennas than computers to wear on our faces, according to sales figures shared by the research firm IDC and the TV news and entertainment company E.W. Scripps.
To be fair, TV antennas are way cheaper than the Vision Pro. It’s still not great that an accessory for a slowly shrinking 20th century technology, the television, is outselling what is supposed to be a gateway technology to a more immersive 21st century internet.
Your lack of interest so far in face computers is no big deal — but only if today’s devices prove to be a building block to a future in which something like a face computer replaces your smartphone as the primary way you use the internet.
Those are the stakes here. Apple, Meta, Snap, Microsoft and other companies working on face computers want you to believe that those devices will usher in a transformative combination of the reality around you and the digital world that is today confined to screens. (Mark Zuckerberg calls this blend of your life and digital life the “metaverse.” I’ll skip that term.)
So here are two questions you have to ask yourself now and for years to come:
- Can you look past the dorky designs, outrageous prices and current technical limitations of today’s face computers like the Vision Pro and instead imagine where future generations of face computers might take you?
- And is this potential future better than the immersive digital experiences you already have with your phone, computer or other devices?
Do spreadsheets make you feel inspired?
Lots of people have focused on the technical shortcomings of face computers that have existed so far.
Face computers tend to feel heavy on your face, and they make some people feel dizzy or sick. The battery life on face computers doesn’t last very long. (Apple claimed up to two hours of battery life for the Vision Pro.)
Face computers can overheat or make your noggin feel sweaty and gross. The field of view that you see when looking through a face computer is often more limited than you want.
Apple talked on Monday about solving some of those technical problems. My colleague Chris Velazco tried the Vision Pro for about 30 minutes and said it was the best face computer out there. We should reserve judgment until people have a chance to stress test the Vision Pro outside of Apple’s controlled demonstrations.
The reality is that the Vision Pro is still a pair of high-tech ski goggles that’s tethered with a cord to a battery pack. The perfect, lightweight, cool looking, high performing, and unobtrusive face computer is still years away, if it is possible at all.
The real shortcoming of face computers, though, is not their technical specifications. It’s the lack of imagination of companies that make the devices.
Remember, companies are trying to persuade you that these things can do magic that the smartphone already in your pocket cannot do.
They’re trying to pitch you on a future digital life that makes you feel more connected and less isolated than the internet can make you feel today, and more visceral and real. The vision depends on you feeling excited about the possibilities.
Maybe my heart is black and dead — okay, fine, it is — but the office work and entertainment scenarios for the Vision Pro that Apple showed on Monday did not make me feel inspired. They seemed compelling but also sad and lonely.
Do you look at your Excel spreadsheets and wish you could tinker with those formulas through a giant virtual screen that you access through your ski goggles?
Sure, maybe that would be handy. But Apple’s pitch to manipulate mammoth spreadsheets laid out in your field of view with the Vision Pro didn’t make me yearn for this device.
Face computers and the vision problem
Apple showed other imagined uses of its Vision Pro that at least to me, felt either cold or copied what companies such as Meta have been talking about for years.
Apple showed off people using its face computer to immerse themselves in movies and other entertainment and surf the web with a virtual version of a keyboard or subtle finger gestures. Apple talked about taking videos with its Vision Pro that can feel so lifelike that they’re like reliving experiences in real life.
That sounds great, except the company showed off these immersive videos and audio in a sterile living room setting. I couldn’t feel what Apple wanted me to feel.
Look, I am not making judgments based on Apple’s two hour infomercial. I’m curious to try Apple’s Vision Pro for myself. Maybe you are, too. (Tell me what you’re curious to try, or not, in the Vision Pro at [email protected])
You won’t be able to buy the device in the United States until early next year, Apple says. The company made it clear that you’ll probably want to go in person to an Apple store to have a Vision Pro fitted properly to your face.
It doesn’t matter that face computers have been unpopular so far. You know that Apple has a history of transforming niche technologies like smartphones and digital music into something that’s for everyone.
But it does feel meaningful that I’m asking you the same question people were asking about Google Glass 10 years ago: What are face computers for?
I was excited about Google Glass and I’m curious about the Vision Pro, too. I also know that it’s a tall order for any computer to fulfill the dream of a technology that gets out of your way and connects you to both your reality and worlds of your imagination.
Read other first impressions of the Vision Pro:
- “I don’t know whether it will be the ‘next computing mode,’ but you can see the conviction behind each of the choices made here. No corners cut. Full-tilt engineering on display.” (TechCrunch)
- “Was all this made better by the wildly superior Vision Pro hardware? Without question. But was it made more compelling? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I can know with just a short time wearing the headset. I do know that wearing this thing felt oddly lonely.” (the Verge)
- “The Vision Pro is also unlike almost every other modern Apple product in one crucial way: It doesn’t disappear. In fact, it does the opposite. It rests on your face and shields your eyes, sensory organs that are a crucial part of the lived human experience.” (Wired)