Overheard at ON_Discourse
Overheard at ON_Discourse

That’s not good

An innovative idea that’s too ahead of its time

From the editor: This perspective emerged out of a virtual event after the launch of the Vision Pro. A member was broadcasting into our Zoom call as their ethereal Apple persona before crashing out of the session. This sparked a member debate about which device the Vision Pro more closely resembles. We follow Chatham House rules, so we do not attribute perspectives without authorization.

In 1993, Apple released the Newton, the world’s first personal digital assistant (PDA). It was ugly, buggy, and expensive, and it also included a non-functioning stylus that frequently got misplaced. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

The Newton deserves a lot of credit. It invented a new category of computing for mobile devices. Many of the initial ideas for personal note taking and contact management persist in our smartphones today. To put it another way, the Newton was analogous to the Velvet Underground: not popular, but influential. At the same time, its failures were comical.

I am not the only one to say this. Beeple recently made the same comparison. So what does this mean for Apple and the Vision Pro?

The Newton was analogous to the Velvet Underground: not popular, but influential.

Apple is now just another player in the VR void. And so they have to join Meta, Pico, and all the other brands in their search for a use-case that will make headset computing mainstream. Let me put it another way: the Vision Pro did not change the VR industry. I don’t care how much they try to use the word spatial, the Vision Pro is a conventional VR device that is just heavier and more expensive.

Apple’s brand is aspirational, luxurious, and innovative. These attributes were earned by the spectacular attention to detail, design, and product-market fit that define every other product in their ecosystem. The high standards that Apple has traditionally set for itself have usually come with hard decisions that ultimately serve the customer. Upon his return in 1997, one of the first things Steve Jobs did was kill the Newton product line. They went back to the drawing board and ultimately came back with the most successful piece of hardware in the history of digital technology

Does any of that sound familiar to you?

That is the wrong comparison

The Vision Pro is neither the iPhone or the Newton. You have to think bigger.

From the editor: We are noticing that this device is prompting very strong contrarian discourse. In this case, a member is expressing a direct pushback against the Newton comparison. We follow Chatham House rules, so we do not attribute perspectives without authorization.

Is the Vision Pro the next Newton or iPhone? I urge you not to take the bait and condense this product launch into a specious binary. The company that built and launched the Newton might share a name, but it has no relationship to the Apple that exists today. Let me put it bluntly: they might not have landed on a use-case yet, but Apple always wins.

It is possible that the experience of the Newton fundamentally changed how Apple operates because since that launch, Apple has never again been first to market with a product. This is because the first to market is statistically the worst option. The iPhone was not the first internet-powered mobile phone. The Apple Watch was not the first smart watch. And the Apple Vision Pro is not the first headset device. I think we can all agree that those products are doing quite well. The Apple Watch is outselling all other watches in the world and the iPhone, well, it also succeeded.

If we are going to do a comparison, then we have to look to more recent Apple history. The Apple Watch and Apple TV are closer analogues. Both of those products and platforms launched without landing on a clear value-proposition and therefore with a longer adoption curve. They have the capital, brand, customer base, and time to figure these things out.

I’ll say it again: Apple always wins.

Apple Flubbed the Vision Pro Launch

Overheard at ON_Discourse
Overheard at ON_Discourse

Lost opportunity

The launch of the Vision Pro made me miss Steve Jobs

From the editor: The initial skepticism of the Vision Pro prompted many of our members to question Apple’s marketing strategy. Here is a collection of takes from a member at a recent virtual event who scrutinized the potential of this contentious product. We follow Chatham House rules, so we do not attribute perspectives without authorization.

Something struck me about the launch of the Apple Vision Pro. The whole process felt flat as if Apple was releasing a minor upgrade to an existing unit and not a revolutionary new piece of hardware. This was released more like the original Apple Watch, as if it were a fashion accessory that augmented the iPhone. It made me realize that this is the first major hardware release in the post-Jobs era. Does this explain the flat release? Is Apple any good at launching revolutionary products anymore? Does it matter?

Steve Jobs always marketed around clear and accessible customer use cases. When I saw “1000 songs in your pocket”, I immediately got the iPod (conceptually and commercially). The same can be said about the iPhone; this single device combined the iPod, phone, and mobile web. Additionally, the deliberately designed white phone contrasted mightily against the all-black devices that dominated the sector. Early adopters signaled their association with the Apple brand just by walking around. The little white brick made them look cool, which made other people want to buy one. The Vision Pro does not offer any of those benefits.

I’ve noticed that Apple has in-housed the marketing for the Vision Pro. This has resulted in unflattering 3D renders of the device with ineffective demonstrations of use cases. As a result, they haven’t made me want to buy one and I spend a lot of money on random shit I don’t need. 

The marketing was a flub, but this is still Apple and I fully expect future releases of the Vision Pro to go mainstream. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a fascinating new kind of computing experience get released without any imagination or spark. It’s disappointing and will result in a longer arc on the inevitable adoption curve.

XR will now forever be known as Spatial

This was no flub. Apple’s launch defined a new product category from scratch.

From the editor: We shared the critiques of Apple’s marketing with another member who has spent decades marketing with Apple. It turns out there are alternative ways to interpret Apple’s marketing strategy. We follow Chatham House rules, so we do not attribute perspectives without authorization.

Apple crushed the Vision Pro launch and I can prove it. The fact that we’re all using the word Spatial is the only evidence I need to prove that Apple is, once again, leading the conversation about new technology. No matter how big Apple gets and how premium its prices are, it will always be a challenger brand. In this case, Apple challenged and redefined the very nature of immersive video.

Apple deliberately avoided calling the Vision Pro an XR device, and as expected, the world followed. To call this device XR would follow the conventions set by the Meta Quest. Look at its marketing page: this device is built for video games. It is a toy. Apple had bigger intentions.

Apple positioned the Vision Pro around spatial experiences. This is a new concept that has yet to define a specific use case. Spatial tech can facilitate premium remote work experiences. It can catalyze exclusive new immersive video formats. It can also power a new kind of emotional content format: a sort of living memory. In its product launch, we saw Apple create an opportunity rather than box itself in as a video game player.

The idea that Apple hasn’t specified a use case is not the flaw you think it is; it is more of a flex. Apple has the resources, capital, and capability to launch this product and then figure it out. In your argument, you referred to the Apple Watch and how it was originally marketed as a fashion accessory. That is a fair point, but it is deliberately missing the coda. The initial product launch focused on fashion until health tech took over. Once that use case became clear to Apple, they marketed heavily around that. As a result, this Apple Watch is now the biggest-selling watch on the planet. To put it another way: Apple always figures it out.

In the end, Apple always wins.

Four Things Spatial Needs to Become Legitimate

Overheard at ON_Discourse
Overheard at ON_Discourse

Free advice

The potential of spatial video is meaningless without scale

From the editor: Many of our members are excited by the Vision Pro. They are not deterred by the flawed form factor at all, and are instead focusing on the use-cases. One of our members recently laid out a roadmap for growth that has nothing to do with hardware fixes. This is a Chatham House recreation of a member’s perspective.

The Vision pro is ugly and expensive and buggy and it is going to make the internet way more interesting. The biggest challenge that this product faces is not the shitty keyboard experience or the weight on your face, nor is it the weird battery pack; it is the lack of scale. The Vision Pro needs scale to meet its destiny. Here are four steps that can catapult this product into the mainstream.

1

Subsidize Cost / Reinforce Use-Case

Find a partner that can subsidize the ridiculous retail price. Apple already gets credit for pioneering this strategy to make the iPhone more accessible to customers. The Vision Pro can partner with entertainment providers (Netflix?) or remote work platforms (Zoom?) to make it easier to access this device. The right partner not only reduces the price but it also reinforces the use-cases for this device. Netflix as a partner could pair this device with a new premium spatial video offering that includes exclusive access to this new content. Additionally, if Zoom were a partner, you can imagine remote work getting a significant boost.

2

Elevate Remote Work into a Premium Experience

Speaking of remote work: the Meta Quest made a half-hearted attempt to capture remote work demand but failed. It is inconceivable that professional employees would want to work in a cartoonishly designed metaverse. 


Meta’s failure leaves an untapped white-space in the world of remote work. Zoom interfaces and Slack channels have not noticeably improved since the pandemic. As a result we are seeing more companies try to force employees back into the office. Despite all of this, remote work is not going away. The Vision Pro has the opportunity to enable premium collaborative experiences by converting a pen on a desk into a virtual object that can legibly draw on a digital whiteboard. Eventually the economics of this experience are going to drive mass adoption. As AI continues to rapidly diminish headcounts and management structure, employers will start to consider how much money an office, a desk, a chair costs compared to this device.

3

Leverage Mass Cultural Phenomena

The Vision Pro is driving a new kind of AV format that is undeniably riveting. Spatial video is not just a screen on your face; it is an emotional experience. The original Vision Pro includes a spatial video of Alicia Keys in the studio and it is an absolutely mesmerizing experience. The viewer is no longer a viewer, but a participant in an intimate setting with the musician. You are next to her at the piano, feeling her presence as you are hearing her perform. Alicia Keys is a magnificent star, but imagine this experience at a higher scale. If Alicia Keys has the star power of the sun, Taylor Swift is a galaxy. Her Eras Tour film already broke records in conventional theaters. What will her fans do if they can experience her presence with a fully immersive and personal movie theater experience? What if this experience is offered to die-hard football fans or NBA fans? How much would they pay for premium access to courtside seats from their own couch?

4

Tap into the Allure of Adult Content

This point should not be taken as an endorsement of porn, just an acknowledgement of its power to persuade the population to upgrade their personal tech. The emotional, sensory experience of spatial video is going to be irresistible to many consumers with expendable income. The moments in between intimate viewing are going to drive these users to get more value out of their device than their late-night ribaldry.

For the Vision Pro, scale is not necessarily focused on revenue alone; it’s about culture. Scale converts our collective creativity into new ways to use technology to shape culture. The iPhone is an example of this: there are over 2 million apps in the app store, yet the average iPhone owner frequently uses only 9 apps. You need scale to test out and identify what those final 9 apps could be. The iPhone, after all, is the standard bearer for the modern mobile experience. The Vision Pro has the potential to define the same thing for XR.

This product is going to change the way people consume media which will influence the way media is created. We should all be excited about this future. I have seen what the first Vision Pro can do – bugs and all – and I am still so fucking excited.

AI

is

not

a

new

revolution

Food for thought

It is tempting to think of AI as novel technology that emerged very recently

Overheard at ON_Discourse
Overheard at ON_Discourse

From the editor: One of our most credentialed AI experts shared some essential perspectives for companies betting on AI. This speaker has a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and has been working on machine learning models for over 15 years. As always, ON_Discourse operates under the Chatham House Rule—no attribution of perspectives without explicit consent.

AI is not magical. It is not new. And the recent surge in attention is not the result of an unexpected advancement in generative software.

The dominant media story about AI is that OpenAI achieved a major technological breakthrough sometime in 2022. This breakthrough unlocked new ways consumers can prompt with models to receive shockingly relevant generative output. In other words, before 2022, the generative systems were still largely theoretical. Nope.

The ability to prompt with generative models has been around for more than a decade. Prior to 2022, researchers in cognitive and brain sciences (not computer science, by the way) were interacting with models as seen on ChatGPT. They did not call this functionality artificial intelligence – it had always been called machine learning, a more accurate representation of the underlying tech.

So what happened? If the software didn’t change, why are we treating AI as a groundbreaking technological revolution? The short answers are that the hardware (the GPU chips) got faster and OpenAI put it all online. In other words: the hardware got faster and the UI made it accessible. 

Everything else that happened is hype.

AI researchers are constantly building models, trying something new, and incrementing the version number. Nevertheless, we have to put things into perspective before the hype takes over. This is the reality: no AI model can suddenly build a rocket from scratch or do anything it couldn’t do before. The headlines brag about it getting a 95 on one benchmark, and ignore the fact that the previous model got a 92. It is all a progression.

The headlines brag about it getting a 95 on one benchmark, and ignore the fact that the previous model got a 92.

The technology is undeniably amazing but the amount of hype around their improvements hasn’t been proportional. The only major innovation is how they made their AI models available to the masses. The technology that’s under the hood remains the same.
  
Companies looking to innovate shouldn’t bother with generative AI models. Innovation in areas like quantum computing, neuromorphic computing, and low-temperature semiconductors is much more likely to bring about the next wave of AI than hiring a bunch of Stanford Computer Science PhDs.