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★ The Billions-Dollar VR/AR Headset Question

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Matthew Ball wrote a thoughtful, deeply-considered essay worth your attention, “Why VR/AR Gets Farther Away as It Comes Into Focus”:

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Mark Zuckerberg repeated his belief that within a decade, “normal-looking” AR glasses might be a part of daily life, replacing the need to bring out a smartphone to take a call, share a photo, or browse the web, while a big-screen TV would be transformed into a $1 AR app. Now it looks like Facebook won’t launch a dedicated AR headset by 2025 — let alone an edition that hundreds of millions might want.

In 2016, Epic Games founder/CEO Tim Sweeney predicted not only that within five to seven years, we would have not just PC-grade VR devices but also that these devices would have shrunk down into Oakley-style sunglasses. Seven years later, this still seems at best seven years away.

The appeal and utility of all-day AR glasses is obvious. But we are obviously very far away from such devices being possible, at any price. And I don’t think such devices will ever be goggles with a screen, using cameras to show the real world. I think they must be see-through lenses that somehow include display technology that can project opaque objects and virtual “screens” within your field of vision. I am convinced we will get there. I am equally convinced we are not close to being able to make such devices.

It’s like Alan Kay’s 1972 Dynabook concept, which clearly articulated the laptops and tablets that now dominate personal computing, and but we’re as far from practical AR glasses today as we were from Kay’s Dynabook in the early ’80s, if not the late ’70s, with several extremely difficult technical problems to be solved. The original PowerBooks didn’t arrive until 1991. Or perhaps AR glasses are to VR goggles as the smartphone is to the laptop, and as the laptop is to the desktop PC. The modern smartphone, I would argue, is just a pocket-sized Dynabook. Mass-market laptops took over a decade to arrive after desktop PCs. The iPhone took about 15 years after the PowerBook. VR goggles are seemingly poised to arrive about 15 years after the iPhone.1

My strong gut feeling is that mass-market all-day AR glasses won’t be feasible until 15 or so years after the first sensational VR goggles. They’ll require that much of, and that many, generational leaps forward: chip miniaturization, battery tech, display tech, and sensor tech.

Ball, on the use-case question for VR/XR goggles today:

The examples listed above are technically impressive, meaningful, and better than ever. But the future was supposed to have arrived by now. In 2023, it’s difficult to say that a critical mass of consumers or businesses believe there’s a “killer” AR/VR/MR experience in market today; just familiar promises of the killer use cases that might be a few years away. These devices are even farther from substituting for the devices we currently use (and it doesn’t seem like they’re on precipice of mainstream adoption, either). There are some games with strong sales — a few titles have done over $100MM — but none where one might argue that, if only graphics were to improve by X%, large swaths of the population would use VR devices or those titles on a regular basis. I strongly prefer doing VR-based presentations to those on Zoom — where I spend 30-60 minutes staring at a camera as though no one else is there. But the experience remains fraught; functionality is limited; and onboarding other individuals is rarely worth the benefit because its participants seem to find these benefits both few and small. When the iPhone launched, Steve Jobs touted it did three distinct things — MP3 player, phone, internet communicator — better at launch than the single-use devices then on the market. The following year, the iPhone launched its App Store and “There’s an App for That” proliferated, with tens of millions doing everything they could on the device. The “killer app” was that it already had dozens of them.

This is, quite literally, the billions-dollar question: What are the intended use cases for Apple’s headset? After you buy it, unbox it, and power it on, what are you supposed to do with it? What features and experiences will seem worth spending a thousand or even thousands of dollars? I ponder this every day and I come up short:

  • Games — The visual appeal of a VR headset for gaming is obvious. But what’s the input story for an Apple headset that doesn’t come with handheld controller hardware? If Apple hasn’t been able to make its TV set-top box a major gaming platform after 16 years, how likely are they to do it for a headset priced like a premium PC, not like a gaming console?

  • Movies and TV — The visual appeal of a headset for watching video content is also obvious. In theory it’d be great while sitting on a plane or train — both visually and aurally immersive, like AirPods Pro but for both your vision and hearing. But who’s going to think that’s worth a thousand dollars, let alone perhaps thousands, when you’re still travelling with and carrying-on both an iPhone and a MacBook or iPad? Now that I carry tiny AirPods Pro with me everywhere I go, I don’t pack over-the-ear headphones (like, say, AirPods Max) in my travel kit, for reasons of bulk and weight — and Apple’s purportedly imminent VR/XR headset is almost certainly heavier and larger than AirPods Max.

  • Virtual meetings and FaceTime-style calls — Supposedly meetings in virtual reality with headsets are far more compelling than via Zoom with desktop/laptop/tablet displays and speakers. Let’s just concede that that’s true. But for a $1,000+ headset to be compelling for such use presents a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s only possible when all or at least most of the people in the meetings are wearing compatible headsets. A virtual meeting where everyone else is participating Zoom-style but you are wearing a VR headset is going to make you look weird. And while FaceTime is phenomenally popular and much-used for personal calls, it is an utter non-entity for business meetings. Even Apple itself uses Webex for remote work meetings. Every successful platform Apple has ever established has been fundamentally driven by fun. The Apple II was a fun computer. The Macintosh was even more fun. The iPod and Apple TV are entirely about entertainment. The iPhone was the first fun phone. Apple Watch is Apple’s least fun platform, but I’d argue it’s the most “fun” wristwatch ever made. I suppose it’s true that work meetings in VR are more fun than via Zoom because they’re so much more immersive, but they can’t be more immersive than meetings in real life, and in-person real-life work meetings are seldom “fun”, and typically are dreadfully un-fun.

  • Personal computing via virtual projected displays — Mark Gurman’s latest report on the headset claims it “will be able to show immersive video content, serve as an external display for a connected Mac, and replicate many functions of iPhones and iPads”. But if you’re connected to a MacBook with a built-in display, why go through the hassle of carrying around and strapping on a headset? The obvious answer is that virtual displays in the headset might be far “larger” than even a 16-inch laptop display, and bigger displays are better. But all reports suggest that Apple’s headset will offer a 4K display per eye. 4K is generally 3,840 × 2,160 pixels. But Apple’s old 27-inch iMac and current Studio Display are 5K: 5,120 × 2,880 pixels. I don’t see how a headset with only 4K per eye can possibly simulate a virtual display with the field-of-view size and can’t-perceive-the-individual-pixels “retina” quality of a Studio Display. At your desk, I can’t imagine how wearing a headset would be better than sitting in front of a Studio Display. When travelling — even if your “travel” is no farther than your couch or the local coffee shop — it doesn’t seem worthwhile to wear a headset when your MacBook already has an excellent display, even if only 13 inches. Perhaps I simply lack imagination in this regard, and the experience will be far more compelling than I think it would be. But I just don’t see people spending $1,000+ to do their computing work wearing a headset when their MacBook already has a display built in, and the ability to see and participate in the real world around your display is inherent and entirely natural. If you’re carrying a hardware keyboard and a mouse/trackpad, why not carry an all-in-one laptop? And if you’re not carrying a hardware keyboard and mouse/trackpad, you’re never going to be as productive as you’d be if you did.2 And I haven’t even mentioned compute performance or battery life.

I can’t think of any other use cases for a VR/XR headset. I cannot believe that such a headset would be intended for wearing around as you go about daily life, augmenting the real world with virtual displays and ambient contextual information. That’s what we need AR glasses for, not VR goggles.

As I’ve repeated in my recent speculation about Apple’s headset, I am not dismissing it in advance. Quite the opposite — I look forward to experiencing it with great anticipation. I believe Apple must have answers to the question of why we will want to buy it, carry it, and use it in addition to and alongside all the devices we already buy, carry, and use. Why else bring it to market? But damned if I can imagine those answers, given the state of chip, display, and battery technology today.


  1. One can certainly argue that there was a solid market for smartphones about 5 years before the iPhone — the heyday of BlackBerry and Symbian. Similarly, there have been popular VR headsets for sale — PlayStation, HTC Vive, and Facebook’s Oculus and Quest — for about 5 years. The Macintosh came about 5 years after the command-line Apple II. There were crappy but serviceable notebook computers 5 years before the PowerBook. So the pattern I’m talking about seems to be that it takes about 10 years to start one of these generational leaps with clumsy primordial products, and another 5 years for Apple to hit upon and ship the paradigm that really sticks and winds up defining the entire category henceforth. It’s not that Apple is seldom first — they’re never first, because they don’t ship their prototypes. ↩︎

  2. Do you type as well on an iPad touchscreen as you do on a real keyboard? Do you think Apple is going to ship a virtual reality keyboard where you move your fingers in the air that works as well as even an iPad touchscreen keyboard? I do not. ↩︎︎

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jheiss
9 days ago
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Virtual meetings strikes me as the most likely of these, although very un-Apple. If you convince companies that this improves remote work they can easily justify the cost of the device, and having a company buy them for everyone solves the chicken-and-egg problem. But Apple doesn't really do enterprise sales like this. Particularly as everyone would want to use them on other companies' conference platforms like Teams and Google Meet.

The problem with the rest of these is that they're consumer applications. As Gruber notes it seems hard to imagine people would spend the money, and they'd have the same problem as Google Glass: you'd look like a dork.
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Study Suggests That Hardware Buttons in Cars Are Safer and Quicker to Use Than Touchscreens

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Frank Landymore, writing for The Byte on a study conducted by Swedish car magazine Vi Bilägare:

Over the summer, the magazine conducted tests across 12 models of cars — eleven modern, along with one 2005 Volvo with physical controls — and allowed test drivers to get to know the ins and outs of the vehicles. The tests themselves were simple: drivers were instructed to cruise down an empty airstrip at 68 miles per hour and were timed on the completion of four infotainment tasks, ranging from adjusting the AC to messing with the radio.

The Swedish magazine found that the 2005 Volvo far outperformed the modern, infotainment screen equipped cars, with a driver completing all four tasks in just ten seconds and 1,000 feet traveled.

Meanwhile, the best time in the modern cars was nearly 14 seconds. But even these speeds were relative outliers, because for the majority of infotainment equipped vehicles, it took well over 20 seconds and at least 2,000 feet.

I am nearly certain that everyone knows this is true, especially the designers at car companies. The reason that cars are largely switching to mostly touchscreen controls is the same reason phones switched — software is more flexible than hardware. Cars today do more than cars from 2005 did. But in the same way that all phones still have some hardware buttons (volume, power, mute), cars should too. The trick is getting the balance right. A couple of recent cars I’ve driven have definitely gotten that balance wrong.

It’s also the case that as cars take baby steps toward self-driving, previously stateful hardware controls need to become stateless. A traditional turn signals sticks in place until you complete the turn. That’s tricky with a car that can turn itself. Or just think about volume knobs on stereo equipment. In the old days, the physical knob indicated the volume level, usually on a scale of 0–10 (but not always, of course). Nowadays, though, playback volume is generally adjusted directionally, up or down, and the knob or buttons don’t indicate where the level is set, because the level is a value stored in software, and indicated on a display.

We’re not going back to hardware buttons for everything, but we have a long way to go until touchscreens surpass the usability of familiar hardware buttons.

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jheiss
30 days ago
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My 2009 BMW has physically stateless turn signals and volume control. These are solvable problems without abandoning physical controls.
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Dark Sky Goes Dark

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Apple bought the groundbreaking weather app/service Dark Sky back in March 2020. As promised, the app stopped working last night at midnight. (The API will keep functioning until the end of March.) Apple has integrated some of Dark Sky’s features into the Weather app — most importantly, hyper-local precipitation forecasts. But the overall interface of Weather is quite different from Dark Sky’s. Me, I long used Dark Sky for precipitation alerts, but I never loved the app’s interface. Many people did, though, and I don’t think there’s any other app with a similar presentation.

So it goes.

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jheiss
35 days ago
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CARROT Weather isn't the same, particularly for someone who used Dark Sky for a long time, but I'm slowly getting used to it.
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iOS 16.2 Limits AirDrop’s ‘Everyone’ Option to 10 Minutes

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Chance Miller, 9to5Mac:

Last month, however, Apple made a change to this setting, starting with iPhone users in China. In iOS 16.1.1 and iOS 16.2 beta 2 in China, the “Everyone” option could only be enabled for 10 minutes. After that 10-minute period lapsed, the AirDrop setting would change back to “Contacts Only.”

Apple drew criticism for this change, as protesters in China had been using AirDrop to spread posters and other content in opposition to Xi Jinping and the Chinese government. The Chinese government is believed to have made the change request to Apple, and Apple complied with that request.

At the time, Apple also said it would expand this restriction for AirDrop globally starting in 2023. The company, however, appears to have expedited this timeline. Starting with iOS 16.2 RC today, the new restriction on the “Everyone” option for AirDrop is now in place globally.

I’ve had AirDrop set to accept drops from everyone for a while, and never encountered any weirdos, but stories like this one regarding nude photos being AirDropped anonymously on a Southwest flight are common. I wonder, though, whether “Everyone all the time” should have remained an option alongside “Everyone for 10 minutes” — it does seem like some people (schools for example) make good use of keep AirDrop open always.

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jheiss
59 days ago
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And also schools are a terrible place to allow kids to spam each other. Even if they're not sending porn (which they are) they'd be distracting everyone in class with memes constantly.
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★ Two Weeks Later and Twitter Is Still Up

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In the immediate aftermath of Twitter’s mass layoffs and subsequent resignations, there were widespread reports that the staffing situation and collective brain drain were so dire that the site would collapse. Two weeks later — with World Cup soccer drama fueling record usage — such concerns seem to have been overblown.

Davey Alba, Jack Gillum, and Margi Murphy, reporting for Bloomberg:

Twitter Inc.’s mass exodus of employees leaves the platform vulnerable to a broad range of malfunctions. The social network will succumb to a major glitch at some point, technologists predict. It’s just a matter of when. [...]

Multiple teams that were critical for keeping the service up and running are completely gone, or borrowing engineers from other groups, according to people familiar with the matter. That includes infrastructure teams to keep the main feed operational and maintain tweet databases. #RIPTwitter trended on the site, as users and departed employees predicted an imminent shutdown and said their goodbyes.

Joseph Menn and Cat Zakrzewski at The Washington Post, “Twitter Death Watch Captivates Millions”:

Several critical teams essential to keeping the site functioning were cut to a single engineer or none by the departures Thursday, leaving the company partially on autopilot and likely to crash sooner or later, engineers said.

And from a day prior:

“I know of six critical systems (like ‘serving tweets’ levels of critical) which no longer have any engineers,” a former employee said. “There is no longer even a skeleton crew manning the system. It will continue to coast until it runs into something, and then it will stop.”

Alex Heath and Mia Sato, reporting for The Verge:

Remaining and departing Twitter employees told The Verge that, given the scale of the resignations this week, they expect the platform to start breaking soon. One said that they’ve watched “legendary engineers” and others they look up to leave one by one. [...]

Multiple “critical” teams inside Twitter have now either completely or near-completely resigned, said other employees who requested anonymity to speak without Musk’s permission. That includes Twitter’s traffic and front end teams that route engineering requests to the correct backend services. The team that maintains Twitter’s core system libraries that every engineer at the company uses is also gone. “You cannot run Twitter without this team,” a departing employee said.

Two weeks later and it seems they can run Twitter without that team. Or, perhaps, it’s just been luck and collapse is imminent.

Chris Stokel-Walker for The Guardian, “Twitter Has ‘50% Chance’ of Major Crash During World Cup, Says Insider”:

Twitter stands a 50% chance of a major outage that could take the site offline during the World Cup, according to a recently departed employee with knowledge of how the company responds to large-scale events.

The former employee, who was granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of what was discussed, has knowledge of the workings of Twitter Command Centre, the platform’s team of troubleshooters who monitor the site for issues such as traffic spikes and data centre outages. “Between the lack of preparations and the lack of staffing, I think it’s going to be a rough World Cup for Twitter,” said the former employee.

He suggested that an incident of some kind — such as a service responding slowly or incorrectly — is almost a certainty during the 29-day competition in Qatar, estimating a 90% possibility of something going wrong that users would see. The likelihood of Twitter staying online during the competition, which kicks off on Sunday, is no better than even, according to the former employee.

The World Cup is only half over. Let’s check back in another two weeks.

But while fears of technical collapse seem to have been overblown, Twitter’s advertising collapse is seemingly continuing unabated.

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jheiss
65 days ago
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If they laid off enough people that nobody is _changing_ anything then there's a pretty good chance it will just keep on trucking for at least a while.
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‘Everyone’ AirDrop Is Now Limited to Just 10 Minutes for iPhone Users in China

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Filipe Espósito, reporting for 9to5Mac two weeks ago:

As noted by 9to5Mac readers, today’s update adds a time limit when the user chooses to enable AirDrop for everyone, not just contacts. With this change, people in China can no longer keep AirDrop turned on for everyone, including unknown users, for an unlimited time.

The change in how AirDrop works has been included in both iOS 16.1.1 and iOS 16.2 beta 2, both released today for users and developers. Also noted by our readers, this restriction is based on hardware rather than software. This means that only iPhone models purchased in Mainland China are affected by the update.

This is not the first time Apple has implemented an iOS restriction based on hardware model. For instance, the Taiwanese flag emoji is not available on iPhones sold in China. Apple also uses the same method to limit the volume level of its devices in European Union countries, as required by law.

However, when it comes to AirDrop, it’s unclear why Apple decided to limit the “Everyone” option to 10 minutes. Some people speculate that the Chinese regulator required Apple to update iOS as an attempt to prevent anonymous people from spreading harmful content and anti-government material.

Mark Gurman, reporting for Bloomberg:

Apple didn’t comment on why the change was introduced in China, but said that it plans to roll out the new AirDrop setting globally in the coming year. The idea is to mitigate unwanted file sharing, the company said.

You don’t have to be Kreskin to surmise that Apple made this change at the behest of the CCP. There’s no explanation for it being China-only for now. Apple never explained why they dropped the Taiwanese flag from the emoji keyboard in China, either. (Also, the shameful aspect of the Taiwanese flag emoji issue is that Apple removed it from the keyboard for iOS users in ostensibly-free Hong Kong, too.

People are rightfully angered by this change — AirDrop is clearly very useful for exchanging information during protests in China — but as with Apple complying with China’s laws requiring iCloud data centers in mainland China, Apple’s only choices are compliance or pulling out of the Chinese market. Defiance is not an option. Well, not a long-term one.

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jheiss
68 days ago
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All I've heard about AirDrop in the last few months is people AirDropping porn to everyone around them. (Including an email from one of my kid's schools just today.) Who knows why they released this to China first, but I bet this rolls out to everyone soon.
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