At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to connect Meta’s $500 Quest 3 face strap-on for gamer-proles with Apple’s $3,500 Vision Pro face tiara for elite beings of a hypothetical nature, but the devices do share one important thing in common: redundancy. Both offer a set of features that lag far behind our already well-established psychic capabilities. They offer kludgy imitations of what our minds now do effortlessly. Our reality has been augmented, virtual, and mixed for a long time, and we’re at home in it. Bulky headgear that projects images onto fields of vision feels like a leap backwards.
Baudrillard explained it all thirty years ago in The Perfect Crime:
The virtual camera is in our heads. No need of a medium to reflect our problems in real time: every existence is telepresent to itself. The TV and the media long since left their media space to invest “real” life from the inside, precisely as a virus does a normal cell. No need of the headset and the data suit: it is our will that ends up moving about the world as though inside a computer-generated image.
Who needs real goggles when we already wear virtual ones?
Vision Pro’s value seems to lie largely in the realm of metaphor. There’s that brilliant little reality dial—the “digital crown”—that allows you to fade in and out of the world, an analog rendering of the way our consciousness now wavers between presence and absence, here and not-here. And there’s the projection of your eyes onto the outer surface of the lens, so those around you can judge your degree of social and emotional availability at any given moment. Your eyes disappear, Apple explains, as you become more “immersed,” as you retreat from your physical surroundings into the screen’s captivating images. See you later. Your fingers keep moving, though, worrying their virtual worry beads, the body reduced to interface. In its metaphors, Vision Pro reveals us for what we have become: avatars in the uncanny valley.
Apple presents its Vision line as the next logical step in the progression of computing: from desktop computing to mobile computing to, now, “spatial computing.” Apps float in the air. The invisible data streams that already swirl around us become visible. The world is the computer. Maybe that is the future of computing. Maybe not. In most situations, the smartphone still seems more practical, flexible, and user-friendly than something that, like the xenomorph in Alien, commandeers the better part of your face.
The vision that Vision offers us seems more retrospective than prospective. It shows us a time when entering a virtual world required a gizmo. That’s the past, not the future.