Apple’s latest product will insulate users from a burning world.
Perhaps my brain is poisoned from a decade-plus of staring at cascading social feeds of depressing news, but the first thing I noticed about Apple’s demo video for its upcoming Vision Pro headset was the haze-colored light. The promotional clip features well-dressed men and women—mostly alone in their spartanly furnished homes—bathing their eyes in lush content from the $3,500 aluminum-alloy ski goggles. Despite the bells and whistles, I fixated on the glow emanating from the windows in Apple’s painstakingly constructed demo environments: I’ve come to recognize and resent it as the golden hour of a sky tinged by wildfire smoke.
As millions more know after last week, it’s impossible to forget the feeling of being enveloped by low-hanging smog. I moved out West from New York six years ago: Since then, smoke seasons have exacted a physical and psychological toll. Weather patterns grind to a halt, and time seems to stand still in the acrid haze. It doesn’t just sting your eyes and scratch your throat: It forces you, during summer’s longest, most cherished days, to retreat indoors and away from the outside world.
I know this isn’t what the meticulous design geniuses at Apple were going for when they debuted the footage last Monday. The demo was clearly lit to evoke the intimacy and warmth of a late evening’s light as it slants into the double-paned bay windows of an idealized California bungalow—not the sepia-toned haze of a 400 air-quality index. I reminded myself to chill out, stop being such a doomer, and move on. But about 18 hours later, I woke up to images of the East Coast with that familiar climate-apocalypse Instagram filter. My mind wandered back to the Vision Pro, an advanced marvel of immersive technology with the primary purpose of shielding our eyes. An excellent device for an imperiled planet.
Last week was, in other words, an especially weird one to unveil a future in which people with enough disposable income can retreat from the physical world into the gated-face community of a 360-degree iPhone screen. It’s easy to reflexively overanalyze the peculiar aesthetic of Apple’s presentation or the dystopia-adjacent features of the Vision Pro headset, which include an outward projection of your eyes so that people in your vicinity know when you’re gazing at them and not playing seven-dimensional Angry Birds. And it may be uncharitable to connect a marketing video to climate-disaster avoidance. Still, I struggled to watch the world’s biggest technology company lay out its vision for the future of computing and not find it cynical, even a bit apocalyptic.
There is a moment in Apple’s demo where we see an exhausted-looking woman on a crowded airplane. A baby is wailing in the background. She adjusts the Vision Pro: The chaos of the plane fades to the background as she becomes one with her premium content. This full immersion has an obvious appeal, but it also represents “a total concession to the screens,” as New York’s John Herrman put it. I see the Vision Pro as a play for the last available acreage of pixel real estate: Your peripheral vision.
This is a decent strategy for a corporate juggernaut worth nearly $2.9 trillion. There’s a final-frontier vibe to it all—total sensory colonization. But it’s also a rather depressing turn away from Apple’s previous vision of its products. Historically, the company has marketed its transformative products as tools that help users navigate the world. In sleek promotional videos, iPhones and Apple Watches aren’t just intermediary screens: They propel people through life and enrich it at every turn. Maps, Siri search, calendar apps, and other features support the idealized, highly productive “Apple Man” as he lives efficiently and presently in his daily life. The Vision Pro’s proposition is different. It beckons its user to turn further inward. It is not a tool meant to help navigate the physical world: It is a way to tune it out.
Evaluating a new technology is difficult without also considering the world that it’s dropped into. In the case of the Vision Pro, we’re talking, in part, about a world of inescapable climate emergencies that, as we saw last week, large parts of the country are unprepared for. In recent years, even the optimists in Cupertino have appeared to be grappling with this broader context, introducing Apple features such as crash detection, satellite emergency calling, extreme weather monitoring, and, recently, mental-health insights. These are features for staying safe and alive in a hostile world.
Perhaps it is this tacit recognition that makes the company’s pivot to inward-facing technology feel particularly cynical. How else should one feel when they hear a tech executive utter the phrase “Your entire world is a canvas for apps?” What I do know is that transformative technologies immediately spark our imaginations and elicit strong emotions—maybe an immediate understanding that something new is possible. Here, for me, the Vision Pro succeeds. When I look at it I feel a strong and sudden pull in the wrong direction—a concession to screens at a moment when so many signs suggest challenging or reevaluating our relationships to them. When I look to the future, I feel the anxiety and uncertainty of a series of challenges that necessitates an ability to confront problems head on. The Vision Pro may be merely an expensive gadget and a gimmick, but it represents a rationale that feels almost comically ill-suited to our moment: an invitation to narrow our collective aperture at a moment that asks us to bear witness and that demands our clear, unblinking gaze.