🟢 Vision Pro: Spatial Computing

screenshot from visionOS of NetNewsWire, Photos, and GoodLinks running
Apple has been really clear in their messaging that this isn’t an AR headset or a VR headset; it’s a “spatial computing” device. I suspect 50% of the reason they did this was because they want an iron grip on their PR messaging for this product and don’t want it compared to other devices you strap on your head, but also, it’s clear that Apple sees this as the part where they can uniquely contribute to this market.

I love being immersed in my computer. I use my Mac with two massive 27“ 5K displays, and I very badly want a bigger display but my only two choices are an overpriced XDR display from 2019, or Dell’s hideous monstrosity of a 32” 6K monitor. Whenever I’m at a bank or a car dealer watching the employee using a 17 inch 1080p monitor with an equally mediocre slow computer, I feel for them, because to them a computer is just this dull, uninspiring tool that is probably holding them back from being able to work better because the IT department is so budget constrained that they’re getting the cheapest computers possible.

Computers are great when you have a lot of screen real estate, and the Vision Pro gives an amazing demo of what computing could feel like if it wasn’t encumbered by the limits of your computer screen.

The night before I wrote this, I blew through my Vision Pro’s battery sitting in my hammock chair, with a lap desk with my Pancake keyboard (a Planck-like keyboard I built from a kit that has Bluetooth support) connected. My cat Milo was curled up by my feet, and I had a Simpsons episode playing, a giant Messages app window in front of me, a browser window open, and a couple other apps here and there. I alternated between having the passthrough mode enabled, and being in the desert.

It was such a cozy experience! It’s great for watching movies and TV shows because it gives you that “second screen” experience where you can be looking at IMdb or looking up some fact about something while watching, but without having to crouch down looking at your phone.

The spatial computing concept is very simple and you will take to it like a duck to water. You press the digital crown to bring up the Home Screen which will look familiar to any iOS or iPadOS user. You look at an app and click to open it. App windows have a white bar underneath them, which you can “grab” by pinching when looking, and then you can move the window around in three dimensions. And you can push a window away, or pull it toward, you, and it’s kind of insane how that feels. An app window that’s 18 inches in front of your face might take up the same amount of space in your field of view as a much larger window you moved 10 feet from you, but just like how you can feel the difference between a small TV close up and a large TV far away, Vision Pro gives you the sense of depth, and it’s fucking magical.

As a 1.0 thing, Apple has nailed it. It’s basic, and it’s not in a place where I could use it for general-purpose computing, but it’s a foundation I’m very happy with (and given that visionOS is based on iPadOS which has a strained history with app/window management, I am relieved). This is closer to how I wish multitasking worked on the iPad, and I hope that some of these concepts actually find their way there because Stage Manager and every other attempt Apple has made to make the iPad multitask has been a dud.

There are some rough edges still. The interface is radically spatial, and that means if I opened Safari in my dining room, and walked into my office, that Safari window is still hanging there in my dining room (and if you have it floating in the middle of the room you can literally walk alongside and behind it, and when you’re behind it it’s just a white rectangle). But if I open the app launcher and click on Safari, it seems like nothing has happened, because even though it did activate Safari, I left Safari in the other room (sometimes the future is just hilarious). I can see some interesting potential there! If Fantastical offered a wall calendar mode I could adorn one of my office walls with a calendar. Instead of having a calculator on my desk, I could put PCalc on my desk. It gets exciting fast when you think about what you could do.

But also I am immediately craving more advanced window management because that makes me productive. Something like Mission Control, or the cmd-Tab app switcher, or an equivalent to Alfred, or the ability to have widgets I can put places, or the ability to make a preset workspace with certain items/apps on my desk/walls in a room, and quickly restore that workspace after a reboot. In a decade, visionOS is going to have a lot of these things, but the trickle of new stuff each year is going to feel glacial for the first 3 or 4 years, just like it felt glacial with the iPhone and iPad. I don’t know if y’all are old enough to remember, but the first iPhone shipped without copy/paste, an app switcher, the ability to send MMS messages, or even the ability to move around the home screen apps at will! But the original iPhone was nonetheless a blast to use, even with the very first iPhone OS (full disclosure: I didn’t buy an original iPhone; I got an iPod Touch a few months later, and loved it).

But this is S tier. Apple has nailed this conceptually. They have provided a reference implementation of the rudiments of how apps should work on a spatial computing platform, and now it’s hard to imagine it working any other way. And in 2–3 years you can bet that apps in all the other VR headsets will offer a half-baked version of this experience for a fraction of the price and grow the market, and those headset makers will nonetheless poke fun at Apple for being late to the market.

And this is characteristically Apple. They wouldn’t have shipped this if they didn’t have something that felt adequately differentiated from the rest of what was being offered.

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