BackBack to selection


by Joanne McNeil

Notes from Inside the Ecosystem: Joanne McNeil on Apple Vision Pro

The Apple Vision Pro headset with battery

From the late aughts until pre-pandemic times, Apple’s presence in my life seemed concise and easy to recognize. It manufactured the phone in my pocket and the laptop I worked on. I picked an iPhone and a MacBook over the alternatives for the usual reasons: because Apple products were reliable and well-designed with intuitive user interfaces. The company, as a product manufacturer, appeared to have a vastly different purpose than the neighboring Silicon Valley empires extracting and monetizing data like Google and Facebook. 

Something changed in recent years. Now, when I think of Apple, I think of the AirTags I use to track my luggage or of contactless payments with Apple Pay on my iPhone—a service that struck me as redundant when I first heard about it, but then I lost my wallet and realized how easily I could get by without it. Apple is why I sometimes take the long way home: At the end of each day, I check the Health app to see how many steps I walked. Lately, when friends send me articles to read, I notice the links more frequently originate from Apple News. On a lazy afternoon, I might watch For All Mankind on the couch. Apple is both the network it’s on and the maker of the iPad I use to watch it. Last year, the company announced it surpassed one billion paid subscribers across its services, like iCloud, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and Apple Music. Now, I have a distinct sense of the culture of the Appleverse and its scope when I use its products. 

It is in this diffusive era of Apple that its spatial computing headset Apple Vision Pro has launched. The Vision Pro interests me less as new hardware than as a stake in the ground. With this headset, how will Apple influence flows of VR and AR entertainment? Could an ecosystem emerge in tandem with the Vision Pro that will shape “metaverse” creativity as much as, say, the Apple Podcasts directory influences audio streaming trends? 

I demoed the Vision Pro shortly after it hit shelves in early February. When I left the Apple store, I realized that perhaps I had been thinking about the company’s history of big product launches too narrowly. Apple doesn’t just build products, but contexts for its products. The iPod had iTunes, the iPhone has the App Store. Each device ushered with it a marketplace where every offering must adhere to Apple’s rigorous standards for inclusion. 

VR remains an emerging field. There are no canonical experiences with this technology, and after years of hype it’s still the potential of this technology that’s talked about, not what’s actually been realized outside niche examples. Deloitte’s annual technology trend report for 2024, anticipating the eye roll from readers upon seeing VR listed yet again, defensively argued that this year, “spatial computing” has elevated the technology from “consumer toy to enterprise tool.” The term “spatial computing,” which Apple has adopted to describe Vision Pro functions, dislodges VR from the ill-fated NFT and Web3 trappings that were part and parcel with Facebook’s vision of the metaverse two years ago. Instead, it leads with improved immersive capabilities through AI and spatial mapping. I wrote in this magazine in 2022 that VR cannot thrive creatively if it’s developed under the toxic auspices of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. Apple, on the other hand, is the Big Tech company known for its commitment to design and taste—and technology that works. What happens if the Vision Pro turns out to be the device that finally brings to fruition the various storied use cases over the years of “digital twins” and co-presence and immersive entertainment?

There was music before the iPod existed, but right now VR content is still in the experimental stages. Assuming they choose to do so, given the product’s expected low first-year sales and the developer community’s fraught relationship with Apple at the moment, developers will begin designing with the Vision Pro in mind, meaning they will have to skate by Apple’s standards for which spatial computing experiences are approved in the App Store. Apple marketplaces are heavily moderated, a complex issue due to its scale: Pornography isn’t welcome, neither is Alex Jones, nor is an app the artist Josh Begley created it in 2012 that tracked U.S. drone strikes, which was banned by Apple after being rejected a dozen times. Naomi Klein, in her 2023 book Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, writes about examples of platform-initiated censorship, dismayed that the “Bannonite political right” has filled in the vacuum where there might ordinarily be agitation on the left: “Progressives today have not, for the most part, made fighting for a democratic and accountable information sphere a cornerstone of their political agenda. On the contrary, many happily cheered corporate deplatformings—until the same dynamics came for them.” 

If Apple should develop original content for the Vision Pro, journalistic and documentary-based experiences risk being censored. In October, the New York Times reported that Apple abruptly parted ways with the host of The Problem With Jon Stewart. Stewart, according to the report, informed his staff that “potential show topics related to China and artificial intelligence were causing concern among Apple executives.” Previous New York Times reporting in 2020 surfaced that an Apple TV+ show in production inspired by Gawker and helmed by former Gawker staff was killed shortly after Tim Cook learned about it (the weblog outed the Apple CEO in 2008). In that same report, author Ben Smith noted, “a person involved in another recent Apple show recalled instructions to avoid a scene in which a phone would be damaged.” 

Apple has fully transitioned from a fastidiously minimalistic underdog to a Procter & Gamble-style octopus of a conglomerate, and it’s knitting its way into the creation of culture. This culture is now lodged at the point of sale between a customer and merchant. For all the convenience of Apple Pay for people like me, who commonly use it at third wave coffee shops, “cashless” transactions come at a price to unbanked populations. Very quietly, the Apple Wallet team introduced the Apple Pay Later service, a surefire conduit for increasing consumer debt. AirTags, likewise, have very Apple-y surface-level ease and hidden consequences. Maybe you’ll never lose your luggage again, but there are sinister off-level uses, such as when a stalker hides the device in a victim’s car.

I am also confronted with the culture of Apple each time I use my old car stereo. When I connect my iPhone to it, I have to set the volume to the max to listen to music and podcasts at a normal sound level. Each time, I get a wag of the finger in the form of a notification from Apple’s Health app that my hearing is at risk. And each time I think to myself: Why is this corporation valued just shy of $3 trillion so eager to tell me what I’m doing wrong?

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham