Vision Pro + ‘spatial computing’ = new dimensions for builders to explore

by: | Aug 21, 2023

There are a lot of strong opinions about Apple’s recent unveiling of the Vision Pro. Some have said that Apple has revolutionized how we will experience the digital world, while others suggest the Vision Pro “will be one of the biggest tech failures.”

The reality, of course, is likely somewhere in the middle. Scratch that. Reality has many dimensions to it. And in this post, we share our own perspective on what Vision Pro means for brands and businesses that provide digital experiences for their customers — and for builders like ArcTouch who help create those experiences.

TL;DR, this is absolutely the time for dreamers to ideate, for designers to envision and prototype, and for builders to experiment. Even though the tools are new and developer hardware units are not yet broadly available. And even though there may not be a sound business case for launching new apps when the headset becomes available early next year.

So, why should companies invest in anything now? Understanding the opportunity starts by considering the very specific language Apple used (and didn’t use).

Hello ‘spatial computing’

Not “augmented reality.” Nor “virtual reality.” Not even “mixed reality.”

Apple has a recent history of shunning tech industry buzzwords when the company enters a product category. The Apple Watch announcement didn’t include the term “smart watch,” and the company never used the term “tablet” when unveiling the original iPad. During the WWDC keynote — the same talk in which they unveiled Vision Pro — CEO Tim Cook and his team never once said “artificial intelligence” or “AI” in over two hours, despite introducing several AI-powered features and products.

In the days leading up to Apple’s unveiling of Vision Pro, it was no secret that a headset of some kind was coming. But what industry insiders didn’t know was how Apple would craft the story, nor the specific words that would be used.

The company settled on — and leaned heavily into — “spatial computing,” which wasn’t an entirely new term.

However, Apple, with its $3+ trillion market cap and deep resources, has instantly become the leading authority on spatial computing. And the company has left behind the baggage of AR, VR, and mixed reality — terms often used when predicting “the next big thing” but have failed to take root in any large-scale way. Even though companies like Facebook Meta have gone all-in on branding and invested billions of dollars.

Perhaps more importantly, “spatial computing” hints at a new dimension of digital experience that is more likely to inspire our industry’s dreamers, designers, and builders. Because the term itself connotes an entirely new user interface paradigm.

The evolution of the graphical user interface

I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of user interfaces lately, partly because of the rapid rise of generative AI. Jakob Nielsen wrote a terrific article about how generative AI tools (such as ChatGPT and Bard, among others) represent a significant UI change to how we interact with machines. The big AI shift, he explains, is that the user can tell computers what they want, rather than guiding machines through a back-and-forth process to produce a desired output. He calls this “Intent-Based Outcome Specification.”

What struck me most about this article was being reminded of how the graphical user interface (GUI) has been at the center of the “digital revolution” for nearly 40 years. Nielsen refers to the current UI paradigm as “command-based interaction design” with the GUI being arguably the most important factor in bringing computing into the mainstream.

And, undeniably, Apple was a driving force behind the GUI, starting with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984. With the GUI, people provided commands to computers through familiar metaphors (pointing, grabbing, moving) and simple input devices (a keyboard and mouse). In the four decades since the Mac was introduced, there have been significant iterations in our GUI-based devices and controls. Apple moved us from point-and-click to scroll (via the iPod scroll wheel) to tap/pinch/zoom with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The company subsequently introduced the original App Store, spurring a massive marketplace of touch-based applications and new businesses (including ArcTouch, with a name that was a nod to the touch screen).

With each UI shift, legacy applications evolved to embrace new controls and introduce new features. And all new types of digital applications became possible with each new interface.

Now, four decades after the Mac debuted and 16 years after the introduction of the iPhone, Apple is once again redefining the GUI. And if spatial computing is to succeed, Apple will depend on app designers and developers like those at ArcTouch — along with the brands and businesses we partner with — to build entirely new experiences.

New dimensions and controls beg for new applications

There are two significant attributes to the Vision Pro GUI that we believe fundamentally impact the kinds of digital experiences we can create, and how we build them.

First is the concept of space. Gone is the two-dimensional screen. Instead, experiences can float in the 3D world as seen by the user wearing the Vision Pro. Applications can take on virtually any form within that space, from traditional screen-like shapes to digital artifacts that can appear, morph, disappear, etc. Your entire Mac desktop can surround you. It’s like a 360 display of massive scale and depth.

Second is control. There are no physical controls for Vision Pro other than our bodies. Experiences will be controlled by the movements of our hands and our eyes. This control-less interface also opens up the possibility of increasingly accessible experiences — as traditional control mechanisms have been difficult for many with physical disabilities.

Of course, Apple isn’t the first company to build 3D virtual reality goggles, nor the first to enable gesture control – Nintendo popularized motion control with its Wii Remote in the 2000s, and Microsoft followed with the Kinect camera-based controller that tracked the motion of the body.

But the combination of those two attributes, along with Apple’s following among developers, makes Vision Pro and spatial computing unique.

“The Vision platform means we will need a new way of thinking about media and content,” wrote technology writer and investor Om Malik. “It will redefine our relationship with the screen. … For the longest time, we have created digital ‘content’ and ‘experiences’ for a two-dimensional screen.”

The Vision Pro is just the start

While opinions about Apple’s Vision Pro market opportunity vary, most agree that it’s simply not a mass-market product. Most consumers simply won’t consider a $3,500 headset, especially given the lack of applications that will be available in the short term.

As TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater wrote, “Sure, the company has been known for its premium pricing for several decades now, but $3,500 isn’t a consumer price. The Vision Pro isn’t a consumer product.”
Of course, the same could be said of the original iPhone. The original price of $499, by 2007’s standards, seemed exorbitant. And while Apple sold a million units of the original iPhone, it wasn’t until 2008 that sales started to really spike. But it wasn’t because of a price drop — the second-generation iPhone 3G cost even more at launch. Rather, it was the launch of the App Store, the day before iPhone 3G was released, that set the upward course of iPhone sales, which now regularly exceeds 200 million units annually. The explosive growth of millions of apps were a catalyst that propelled iPhone (and iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV sales).

iPhone sales through 2018

SOURCE: GlobalData

I’m certainly not suggesting the Vision Pro will become the next iPhone. As tantalizing as it appears for those of us in technology — early press reviews have been very positive — it’s hard to imagine Vision Pro or its successors having the same kind of ubiquity as a smartphone. Unless of course, it eventually replaces the phone. Or the computer. Or both. It could happen.

But one thing’s for sure: With spatial computing, Apple is committed to once again redefining the GUI. The Vision Pro is just the first of many spatial computing products. And the “Pro” in the name suggests the company anticipates lower-priced versions. And, inevitably, variations that are smaller and less obtrusive, too.

In other words, Vision Pro isn’t the end, it’s just the start.

“Will it change the technology industry? No question,” tech pundit Jason Perlow wrote. “Let’s start with the fact that the real product launched is not the Vision Pro headset but an entirely new computer class – spatial computing – that runs on an operating system that will likely power it for the next ten years and more.”

It’s time to dream, design, and build

Whatever your feeling about the Vision Pro, Apple needs developers to support its “spatial computing” vision. As Malik wrote, Apple “needs a renewal of vows with developers.”

We think that’ll happen — because Apple has done it before. The company has inspired countless developers to embrace their platforms through a massive installed base of potential consumers, powerful development tools, and robust support programs. And just as we loved the touchscreen and the Mac GUI before it, we think developers like us will embrace the spatial computing opportunity.

As a business, ArcTouch is optimistic about the future of spatial computing and our team is already getting started with enthusiasm:

  • We’ve been exploring Apple’s visionOS developer tools — and they are tremendous. Our builders are already getting their hands dirty with the visionOS SDK (and we’re working on a blog post to share our hands-on experiences with it).
  • Our user experience designers are studying gesture control and eye tracking.
  • We’re ideating on spatial computing opportunities with active clients.
  • Our builders are creating prototypes of Vision Pro experiences for clients. (We also plan to share some of these in upcoming blog posts, so stay tuned!)

To repeat, the Vision Pro isn’t going to be available until 2024. But to prepare for 2024, 2025, 2026, and beyond, we need to start dreaming, designing, and building in 2023. We need to learn. We need to experiment to understand how our brand experiences can translate into the new dimensions of spatial computing.

Because Vision Pro is just the start. So let’s get started.

Need help with your spatial computing strategy?

ArcTouch has been building lovable apps and digital products for a wide variety of platforms for over 15 years. Want to talk about your Vision Pro/spatial computing strategy? Contact us for a free consultation.