Just a VR Headset?

Or, No True AR Headset Fallacy

Apple has sent review units to a handful of reviewers, who have had a few days to create videos and write reviews of the Apple Vision Pro, before the general public gets their hands on the device in a few days.

Irksome comments by otherwise intelligent people

Sam Kohl and John Prosser react to these reviews and have a healthy back and forth about the product, based on the earliest public info that hasn't been filtered through Apple:

These two close Apple watchers offer insightful push-back, which is healthy in the sense that when we try to prognosticate about the future of a product, we need to understand things from every angle and as they really are.

However, John repeats something Nilay Patel says in The Verge review, which is that Apple's headset "is just a VR headset." What Nilay is saying is that he has historical context for Apple's headset because he has been using and reviewing such VR headsets for years now, and following the technology closely. He obviously knows what he is talking about, from a hardware point of view. He speaks fairly about the limitations of the device, "magic, until it is not." Everything he explains is based on a close examination of the device itself. He is careful about the details.

However, I wonder if Nilay’s comment that Vision Pro is "just a VR headset" will go down about as well as CmdrTaco regarding the iPod: "No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame."

John Prosser repeats Nilay's line that Apple Vision Pro is just a VR headset, and he mentions that Facebook could have made the Apple Vision Pro if they were willing to charge customers $3,500, then they too could have put better outward facing cameras and better displays in front of the wearer's eyes, and then that imaginary headset would be very similar to Apple's shipping Vision Pro, perhaps better?

The Ship(s) of Theseus

The mistake these reviewers are making is just a twist on the old philosophical problem of identity, famously explained as the thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus. We are asked to consider Theseus on his seafaring journeys, and his crew needing to replace pieces of their ship. Gradually they repair and fix the ship over many years, until every piece of the ship has been replaced. Is this ship the same ship as the original ship? When did it cease being that “same” ship? What if we take all of the pieces that were replaced and collect them up, and rebuild a run-down version of the original ship? Now we have two ships. Which ship is the real Ship of Theseus?

One solution to the problem is to use a different, functional definition of identity, instead of some nominal concept. (In other words, nominally, the only "real" ship of Theseus was the first one, then it stopped being the Ship of Theseus once a single change was made, in fact once it hit the water and started to weather. This is one solution to the thought experiment, but it doesn't match our intuition.) A functional definition might be: that the ship of Theseus is whichever ship takes Theseus and his crew on their adventures. The parts of the ship relate to one another functionally, and as long enough parts of the ship are functioning together as a ship, then it can be considered the ship of Theseus. We hold identity lightly. Any actual sailing ship that Theseus and his crew sail on can be considered the ship of Theseus.

So, applied to headsets, a functional definition (that is less reductive regarding just examining the hardware) might say that any headset that can do augmented reality things and mixed reality things is not “just a VR headset.” (Virtual Reality becomes an immersive, surrounding software experience, not a category of hardware.)

The Book of Face

The fallacy is that Facebook or other manufacturers could have replaced each component of their headsets with better spec'ed components, one by one, until they had arrived at the Apple Vision Pro. Then those vendors could have spent 2024 getting developers to port their apps to Vision Pro, built a headset platform that goes beyond just Virtual Reality games experiences and entertainment, then eaten Apple's lunch.

This may be factual (debatable) and superficially convincing, but still deeply wrong in some sense, because it ignores reality: the fact is Facebook

  • "could have" pushed the state of the art harder;
  • could have produced their own silicon;
  • could have hired better industrial designers instead of letting the skunkworks Vision Pro group at Apple hire them for a more exciting project;
  • could have treated pass-through (reproducing the world around you) as more of a core requirement to create AR / mixed reality in a single headset, instead of an afterthought;
  • could have watched Oblong and John Underkoffler pioneer spatial computing between his 2010 TED talk and when the Apple headset project really got going (Oblong hired a handful of ex-Apple individuals who returned back to Apple after a few years at Oblong);
  • and Facebook could have tried to ship a phone (oh wait, ten years ago they tried) and tablet platform so there would be thousands of tablet apps and phone apps to bring over to their headset—

Facebook could have done all these counter-to-their-culture things, but the fact is: they didn't. That timeline is not our timeline. And the same goes for Samsung, Sony, Microsoft and Amazon.

I call this lying with facts. You throw out narrow little facts which can all be verified to be true, but you ignore other big obvious things that show that the facts don't come together to imply the conclusion you claim they do. Otherwise very intelligent people fall for this all the time because they don't step back and look at the big picture. This kind of misunderstanding is a categorical mis-attribution:

  • The automobile is just a horseless carriage, sans having to feed the horse and scoop up mountains of horse manure, and the horse dies one day, and you can't replace the horse's leg if it breaks, the way you can replace a tire, you have to shoot the horse.
  • Human beings are just wimpy greats apes with long legs and no fur and a bigger cranium; if you added a bigger brain and reason and art and mathematics, and culture and imagination, and religion and architecture and music and taxes and martial law and graveyards, and writing systems and ten thousand years of hard-won knowledge, and the scientific method, which was fought against by religion for centuries, and the Enlightenment, and capitalism—if you just add this to gorillas and bonobos, you would get humans.

These statements are tantalizingly, superficially true, but they miss the heart of identity: when A + B = C, the differences listed in B are what make A and C so different. B is so vast, it doesn't bring A and C together, it pushes them apart.

Apple's headset is clearly very different from the existing headsets on the market in so many already remarked-upon ways, especially price. These pundits undermine their own point by saying that Apple's screens and outward facing cameras are light-years ahead of their competitors. That's the starting point you need to create an entirely different first-hand experience for people who are not full-time VR headset reviewers. There is some line crossed that Apple sees, that normal people see, that VR headset reviewers and manufactures cannot see. To justify purchasing a headset, it needs to do more than just VR, it needs to be more than just games and entertainment. Then it becomes much more useful than just a game console. Then it justifies a higher price too. (Or this is all Apple's hope.)

What makes this all the more infuriating is that Apple has done this so many times before, especially with Macintosh, iPod, and iPhone. (And essentially zero competitors have yet created a viable truly portable tablet platform to compete with iPad—a platform that feels mobile-first, with ten-hour battery life and every app for the platform feeling native. Windows tablets do not satisfy this criterion for battery and legacy (touch target) reasons). Again, this doesn't make the new visionOS platform a shoo-in, but it does mean that Apple gets to lead the technology industry for a lot of reasons, not just their widely feared faithful fan-base; the main reason being vision (pun intended). It just seems that the industry keeps waiting for Apple to come in and show the way, do something initially counter-intuitive but groundbreaking, and then all the vendors will race to catch up and iterate. But somehow only Apple seems capable of this step-function way of thinking.

And Nilay Patel, and other smart pundits keep highlighting this type of narrow thinking with their lack of imagination, trying shove a square new peg into a round old hole. I'm not the one putting words in his mouth, Nilay is really trying to do this! These pundits (Nilay and John) are supposed to be the ones with the perspective to understand what is really going on, but they seem to not see the forest, just trees, very close up, in great detail, perhaps just bark (as I said, they are deep into the details), based on these sort of farcical comments relegating a very different headset to "just VR" when it is clearly designed with such a broader vision in mind, with significantly more capability, in both hardware and software. It's just so uncanny how predictable some pundits are, when they try to pretend to be contrarian for the sake of coming across as objective. It makes them seem anything but! Again, the iPhone shipped in 2007 and tons of smart people publicly missed what was right in front of them, for several years, until it was obvious to everyone. I still wonder, why didn't everyone get rich from investing in Apple after the iPhone was publicly announced? The stock price stayed very very inexpensive for several years, until at least 2008 or 2009, and then it went up like 50 times or 60 times since then!

Is Software King or Is Hardware King?

I think these tech pundits and reviewers also suffer from an annoying form of reductionism or dualism: they see Apple's products more as pieces of nice hardware where the software is a necessary and limiting evil, often the type to lament that they cannot hack the hardware to run their own software, the way commodity PC hardware can run Windows or Linux.

Apple does not and has never seen it this way. Apple starts with the software experience they want to ship, then works backwards from the software to the hardware, then works for like seven years to create the hardware that can enable the experience they want, then they ship the complete package when it's ready. Apple knows their users see the hardware as a necessary evil. Think about it: every piece of hardware that Apple ships has always carried all or most of the downsides or costs (to their users) for their products. (And the software limits and obvious shortcomings are lifted gradually through annual updates, until OS updates become kind of boring fifteen years later).

Travel back in time, and show a cave man your iPhone. Tell him, "Look, iPhone software is amazing! Look at all the many things the software can do! Sadly you must carry around this expensive heavy device in your pocket, with limited battery life, but it is a price worth paying to get access to those amazing software experiences!" Same with the Vision Pro. Apple knows their users kind of don't care about the hardware (inside the case), especially not the specs, which reviewers so unduly focused on. Users only use software, not hardware. Hardware is the price we all pay to use software.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Apple used to have posters on the walls of the product teams' offices that said "Software Sells Systems." But I feel strongly that Apple is at least as software-first, if not more so, these days. From the user's point of view, the experience is so software-centric and the hardware so deliberately minimal, it's hard to argue otherwise. (Yes this is reductive; Apple is not dualistic about this; they design and build products as complete experiences, with their development structured with functionally cross-cutting teams, and not divisional as other companies might do, with Microsoftian fiefdoms.)

It's all about the software, stupid

Any third-party software (that is not Facebook-owned and thus exclusive to Oculus) can be ported to Apple Vision Pro (seated experiences only, based on Apple's documentation and VR experience safety issues). However, probably more than half of the software that developers ship on Apple Vision Pro (especially the rectangle window software, coming over from the iPad, something there is not a lot of on other headset platforms) will not be something that can be ported to Oculus, because it assumes a world of many apps running, many windows, or new experiences that assume a background of the real world with a baseline elaborate (and expensive) pass-through. If new AR experiences created for Apple's headset cannot be ported to any existing VR headset—in principle, in spite of developers wanting to do so (because for example they assume you can cook in your kitchen with the headset on, for example)—how does that leave any doubt that Apple Vision Pro is not just a VR headset?

It's so weird to call out intelligent pundits for saying something irksome and thoughtless, to have to even explain the basics of how words work. If a headset is used for augmented reality and mixed reality activities, and sometimes virtual reality (fully immersive activities) then how is this "just a VR headset?" Yes Nilay is smart and understands all the specs of the hardware, this is just a high-specced VR headset! But my five year-old would say, wouldn't headsets that are used for mostly VR experiences be "just VR headsets?" But headsets that are mostly used for other things be other-thing headsets? The mind boggles when words cease to work as expected.

This means that this is not just a VR headset. It's a platform. Yes, Apple is achieving mixed reality and even a few augmented reality features by cheating and using pass-through ("no true Augmented Reality fallacy"), but they are shipping something real that developers can create apps for, now, not some future glasses that don't exist. Once all this 2024 software exists, the platform will have much more momentum than any other headset. By the time other vendors catch up to the 2024 Vision Pro, four to six years from now, Apple will be shipping the newest 2028 or 2030 Vision Pro or Vision Air product.

I get the feeling that Nilay Patel and other reviewers and pundits are kind of just annoyed that (1) they didn't see it coming (see my article where I elaborated on this, months before any Apple announcement in 2023, and about a year before the product shipped) and (2) Apple pulled off a trick that no one has done: using VR to "fake" AR and mixed reality. It's like these pundits want to grab people and yell in their face, "This is just a trick, this is just VR warmed over; don't fall for it! It's not true AR! The windows aren't really floating in your room!" Like OK, you are trying so hard to be right, but who cares? Again, it just feels like some sort of "no true AR" fallacy. Here is a gold star, you are technically right, but your words are meaningless; congratulations, you broke the English language. Pat on the back.

Keep it up pundits; keep misunderstanding leaps in technology even after Apple publicly explains it thoroughly for the sake of trying to seem objective, so by the time it is too late to go back and understand it in real time, Apple's stock will be up too high, and people will think, oops, we missed that train. Without pundits confusing everyone and causing misunderstanding, perhaps competitors would see things more clearly too, and actually give Apple a run for their money, instead leaving Apple a clear runway, every time.

On Releasing Flawed Products

One last comment: I don’t mean to imply that the commentators are not pointing out legitimate flaws with the product. It is clear that the hardware needs improvement, and that Apple oversold certain features.

There are only two types of products: those that are released too soon, and those that never ship at all.

However I think that industry watchers keep forgetting that this keeps happening every time a product is released: Apple Watch, which iterated in public because they needed to learn how people use it; iPhone, because a 1.0 product, however flawed, was better than waiting another five years to ship a “perfect” version of the device; iPad, with the 1.0 version seeming like an aberration in terms of thickness compared to even iPad 2, which feels much more like the iPad we are used to. A perfect device is a boring device, and that only occurs when the platform is more mature, which by definition only occurs when developers can ship apps to users on hardware that can be purchased by the public.

On missing competitors' apps

The three missing third-party apps that keep being repeatedly mentioned are: YouTube, Spotify, and Netflix.

I think Apple may be genuinely annoyed that there is not a native YouTube app for Vision Pro that works better with the right-sized controls. Because Apple has no competing user-uploaded video social media service. However I think Apple is not at all annoyed that Netflix and Spotify are not on the platform yet. I think they know that their customers who can shell out nearly $4,000 for a 1.0 product can afford $20 a month to test music and video out using Apple's competing services: Apple TV+ and Apple Music. You might even say that TV+ as a service was probably started long ago with visionOS in mind, to make sure Apple could control the availability of high-quality original content for this (then upcoming) hardware play. And the Disney+ app shipping not just natively—but with the device—is no accident.

Again, I think Apple is happy to see Spotify treat themselves as irrelevant on this platform, at least at this point. Apple can control everything about the experience with their native Apple Music app. I'm sure they see allowing Spotify on their platforms, at all, as a cost of doing business, as redundant and lesser. I'm not saying they don't see customers wanting it there, but I think from Apple's point of view, they think, just cancel your Spotify subscription and use that money for Apple Music, and you are set. It sounds cold, but can you imagine a Steve Jobs or Eddie Cue email where they act annoyed that they have to let Spotify on the platform at all to appease regulators? I can! The iPhone had no native apps for a year. And even then they rejected apps for reproducing existing functionality (Calendar, Email), until at some point they let up on this early rule. Apple can be annoyingly opinionated and controlling, surprise!


This does not mean I think this category is a shoo-in, and I don't think this means that any success of Vision / future hardware / visionOS platform will be as large of a success as iPhone, probably not even close. But I think visionOS could create a business that complements the Mac and iPad and even subsumes and grows that core productivity computing market. I think Mac, iPad, and Vision will be the nucleus of their productivity and creativity platform, which also does include content consumption. And I think that by the time the platform has gotten its legs, and the price has dropped (some?) and battery life is better, and weight has been reduced—by that point it will be hard for competitors to catch up. By the time it becomes obvious that Apple has a clever approach, or a "now it's so obvious" approach, it will be too late to benefit from that knowledge, and Vision Pro will be to other headsets what iPhone is to other smartphones: the main attraction, with the best software. (What new software product launches Android-only before it launches iPhone-only? I don't mean emulators and utilities and stuff like that, I mean mainstream, large, successful businesses. What Android-only high-quality tablet software is there? iPad has tons of this stuff.)