The Information: ‘The Inside Story of Why Apple Bet Big on a Mixed-Reality Headset’

From the first of a two-part report for The Information by Wayne Ma (paywalled, alas):

Rockwell, Meier and Rothkopf soon encountered pushback from Ive’s team. The three men had initially wanted to build a VR headset, but Ive’s group had concerns about the technology, said three people who worked on the project. They believed VR alienated users from other people by cutting them off from the outside world, made users look unfashionable and lacked practical uses. Apple’s industrial designers were unconvinced that consumers would be willing to wear headsets for long periods of time, two of the people said.

Count me on the design team’s side. Near the end of Ma’s report is this sentence: “Rockwell’s team also wanted users to be able to wear the headset for as much as eight hours a day.” Perhaps I simply lack imagination, but I can’t see myself wearing something like that for eight hours a day. (I imagine someone a few decades ago saying the same thing about sitting in front of a computer monitor for eight hours a day, which I’ve done for my entire adult life, so as ever, I’m keeping an open mind.)

The men came up with a solution to address the concerns of Ive’s team. For example, they proposed adding cameras to the front of the headset so that people wearing the device could see their surroundings, said the three people. But the feature that ultimately sold the industrial designers on the project was a concept for an outward-facing screen on the headset. The screen could display video images of the eyes and facial expressions of the person wearing the headset to other people in the room.

These features addressed the industrial design group’s worries about VR-induced alienation — they allowed other people in a room to interact and collaborate with a person wearing a headset in a way not possible with other VR gear. For years, the existence of such a display, internally code-named T429, was known only to a small circle of people even within Rockwell’s group.

Again, perhaps I lack imagination, but this outward display, showing the headset wearer’s eyes, sounds bizarre to me. Scratch that, it sounds nightmarishly ghoulish. I’m thinking something like this, but live, like this horror show Facebook actually bragged about. Apple’s not going to ship something ghoulish or goofy, of course. So if something matching Ma’s description ships, it’ll be nothing like what his description has made me imagine. Weird!

Update: Apt comic from Robert Black’s The Sharp End.

Thursday, 19 May 2022