Look Out: The Metaverse Could Be Closer Than You Think
Could Apple’s Vision Pro finally bring the metaverse to the masses?
On 5 June, Apple introduced the world to the “Vision Pro”: its first entirely new product since the launch of Apple’s Polishing Cloth (if you’ve never heard of this either, it’s an expensive cloth to clean your screens with). Described as “an augmented reality (AR) headset that seamlessly blends the real and digital world”, it allows the wearer to switch between augmented and full virtual reality (VR) with the turn of a dial.
Initially, not everyone agreed with the vision; Apple’s stock price fell nearly 1 per cent that day. Naysayers called it repackaged VR hype. With Meta’s Quest, Microsoft’s Hololens and Playstation’s VR already on the market, Apple was simply late to the game. The pair of “nerd goggles” with a two-hour battery life also carried a hefty price tag of US$3,499. And really, why is Apple bothering with the Metaverse when artificial intelligence (AI) is what’s taking off?
Mark Zuckerberg – whose company Meta launched its VR device Quest 3 just days ahead of Apple’s headset – dissed the Vision Pro as not offering any new “magical solutions”. In March, Google also announced that it would stop producing its AR-enabled spectacles, Google Glass. Apple seems to be launching at a time when response to AR/VR technology has dived.
Yet, Apple’s stock price has now rebounded. It seems the world might just be warming up to the Vision Pro idea. What exactly is its promise?
The Metaverse Concept
It’s clear that the term “metaverse” isn’t as hot as it used to be. Likely because expectations were never met. The term was first coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 dystopic novel Snow Crash. The vision: people hook themselves up to devices and enter a new, virtual 3D world, where they could interact with others. The big screen fed us the same idea. Movies like The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010) and Ready Player One (2018) were visualisations of this fantastical world.
When Facebook rebranded itself as Meta in 2021, people expected the door to this remarkable world to open wide. Lockdowns and border closures during COVID-19 fanned the flames; if you could not meet your friends in real life, why not do so in the metaverse? Public interest was piqued, with metaverse-themed cryptocurrency SAND (The Sandbox) shooting up to US$8.44 in 2021: a 170-fold increase from its end-2020 price. Luxury retailers jumped on the bandwagon – Dolce & Gabbana sold its Impossible Tiara, a digital NFT that one can only wear in a virtual world, for 99.9 Ether – more than US$300,000 at that time.
But two years later, the only large-scale adoption of the metaverse seems to be through the increased popularity of VR games. So why, given Apple’s track record of being able to predict and prescribe developments in the tech economy, has it now launched the Vision Pro?
The clue may be the fact that Apple itself does not market its goggles as a metaverse product. They use the term “spatial computing”. Apple is taking off a limiter associated with computers since their invention: the four corners of your monitor. Instead, apps, programs and videos live on any space you wish.
The promise is not in “new world” metaverse, but work productivity and entertainment. The focus is to augment our physical surroundings. Apple offers the ability to overlay digital screens anywhere you wish; you can make calls on Zoom or Teams on as big a screen as you’d like (finally addressing that “font too small” screenshare), declutter your work area (no more need for triple-screens), or arrange bundles of e-papers on your desk.
In effect, the Vision Pro allows users to interact in the physical world more efficiently.
Make no mistake, the device has “new world” metaverse capabilities too. In time to come, you could enter the virtual showroom of a boutique to browse outfits and try them on, visit a car dealership and explore all the specs in detail, or walk into a property show flat to meet a real estate agent for a 3D tour.
The Metaverse of the Near Future
If Apple has found the right footing, you can be sure that other computing giants will up their game. Once this arms race takes off, a plethora of options will become available, facilitating mass adoption. That means that businesses which are not AR/VR-enabled could become obsolete.
Imagine, instead of queuing at the bank, you could interact with the teller using an AR/VR headset, and use your eyes for biometric identification. Fashion retailers can show potential buyers how the outfit would look on them, without having to keep expensive inventory, and without the shopper needing to set foot in a changing room. Accessories to go with that jacket? A swipe of the finger is all it would take.
The potential in education and healthcare is even more staggering. Using augmented reality, surgeons could oversee operations and conduct trainings with haptic touch capabilities lending added dimension. With virtual reality, teachers will be able to transport bored history students into the ancient world.
Businesses should think twice before dismissing the Vision Pro as just a fun device. When Steve Jobs first launched the smartphone, boomers didn’t think having a camera on your mobile phone was helpful. Now, no one can imagine life without an iPhone or android device. Betting against Apple may not be the visionary move.
So while everyone’s now hyping up AI, don’t write off the idea of the metaverse just yet. It may very well be at our doorstep, only hiding in a form that you’re not quite familiar with. A little vision adjustment might be all that’s needed.