Apple Vision Pro
Thoughts on the long-term implications of Apple's latest product
We carry supercomputers in our pocket!
It has become a cliché to point out the amazing processing power of smartphones compared to computers that took up entire rooms a half century ago. However, this doesn’t make it any less amazing to consider that our phones are dramatically faster than those used to send astronauts to the moon. The processing power and functional capabilities of computers have advanced so dramatically that we take it for granted.
As important as raw processing power can be, we should not ignore key advances in how human beings interact with computers. Early computers had no visual interface and were controlled by punch cards. Creating a computer program was laborious and error prone. A single error in a series of punch cards could require a programmer to start from scratch. Combined with slow processing times, this made it difficult to translate the thoughts of human beings into instructions that a computer could act on. Since much human knowledge is gained through iteration, the latency inherent in translating human thoughts into actionable code hindered progress.
The introduction of computer terminals used to control mainframes represented a major advance because programmers had the ability to type code using a keyboard and see the results on a screen. Rather than using punch cards, programs could be entered using an interface humans were already familiar with — keyboards, which had been in use since the commercialization of typewriters a century earlier. Over time, computer programs were built for users without technical backgrounds and accomplished many tasks, albeit in a highly prescribed procedural manner.
While Apple did not invent the mouse, the original Macintosh computer released in 1984 was the first to popularize its use. The mouse became another way in which users could interact with a computer, but it represented more than that. Rather than running procedural programs in which a user responded to prescribed prompts, the mouse allowed a user to interact with windows on the screen in a multitude of ways. The graphical user interface controlled with a mouse and keyboard made possible an array of event driven programs that revolutionized how people interact with machines.
Fast forward over two decades to 2007. Much changed in computing between the release of the original Macintosh and the first iPhone. Microsoft introduced its own graphical user interface, the internet went mainstream, cell phones became ubiquitous, and Apple’s iPod changed the music industry forever. However, in the mid ‘00s, the primary means of interacting with a computer was still the keyboard and mouse while cell phones relied on physical buttons for entry of alphanumeric text.
The introduction of the iPhone represented a step-change in how humans interact with computers. Rather than type instructions with physical buttons or a keyboard and using a pointing device, we began to use our fingers. A rectangular piece of glass became our window to the world, with its appearance changing automatically, almost magically, based on the context of our actions. When a keyboard was needed, one would appear, but it would only remain active while it was needed. Human-computer interaction changed in a revolutionary way which would be carried forward on devices like the iPad and other tablets over the next fifteen years.
We are in the early days of another step-change in how we interact with computers. Much of the coverage of Apple Vision Pro, which begins shipping to customers this week, has missed the mark. Too much attention has been devoted to the functional capabilities of the product rather than considering the long-term implications of advances in the human-computer interface. Spatial computing brings the interface into our physical environment and responds to our body in transformational ways.
From Thoughts to Actions
In traditional computing, we translate our thoughts into actions through a physical or virtual keyboard and a pointing device, whether it is a mouse, trackpad, or our fingers. What if computers could read our thoughts and take action without any physical movement on the part of the user? This might seem like science fiction, but it is the basis of Elon Musk’s Neuralink which just completed its first brain implant on a human earlier this week. Neuralink’s immediate goal is to help severely disabled people, but the potential applications of brain implants could be far broader.
We are likely decades away from a mass market for brain implants, but we are on the verge of having computers that are capable of tracking eye movements.
Eyes have long been thought to be “windows to the soul” because so much communication is expressed through eye contact. Everything from emotion to intent can be inferred through the eyes. If humans can glean important information through eye contact, why can’t computers determine our intent in the same way?
This is precisely the advance that is most exciting about Vision Pro.