June 8, 2023 - 5:00pm

High-tech is all too often hyped-tech. A keenly-anticipated breakthrough turns out to be a small improvement on last year’s model — or a gimmick that ends up at the back of a living room drawer.

This week’s big product launch from Apple might appear to be the real deal. The Vision Pro headset allows users to immerse themselves in an all-encompassing virtual world, a potential game-changer for entertainment, social media, online retail and just about any activity you undertake using a computer screen.

And yet there’s something uncanny about the Vision Pro. The biggest obstacle to consumer uptake (apart from the hefty price tag) is that you have to strap the thing to your head — an off-putting proposition. Apple’s solution is called “EyeSight” — which creates the illusion that the front panel is transparent, allowing other people to see your eyes. What they’re actually looking at, however, is a second outward-facing screen that displays a real-time image of your eyes. In other words, the device is creating an avatar of your face on your face. 

The creepiness doesn’t end there. Despite what it might display to the outside world, the underlying technology is very interested in the real you — minutely interested, in fact. According to Sterling Crispin, one of the developers who worked on the project, eye movements can be tracked along with other subtle body signals to build up a detailed model of the user’s intended actions — even to the extent of predicting what you’re going to do a moment before you do it. “It’s a crude brain computer interface via the eyes, but very cool,” Crispin says, adding, “I’d take that over invasive brain surgery any day”. Well, yes — but is “neither” an option?

Unfortunately it isn’t, because an intimate connection between human and computer is vital to this technology. Any discrepancy between the movements of the user’s eyes, head or body and the virtual reality in which he or she is immersed spoils the illusion. Indeed, it can induce a kind of motion sickness. A seamless user experience thus requires a device that watches you as intently as you watch it, gathering data to make continual adjustments.

Apple has made privacy a major part of its appeal. But will rival companies be as scrupulous? There’s also the question of who owns the device sitting on your face. It might not be you but, instead, your employer. If the Vision Pro is as good as it’s cracked up to be, then it could allow massive savings to be made by replacing office space and business travel with virtual work environments. Yet, by its very nature, this kind of tech would also allow bosses to monitor every last twitch of their employees’ eyeballs, thus providing information on physical and mental states. Working from home might become a more intrusive experience than the most open of open-plan offices. 

As far back as 2018, I argued that the internet was stagnating and in desperate need of genuine innovation. Five years on, the Vision Pro has arrived and I can’t wait to give it a go. And yet, at the same time, a part of me hopes it ends up right at the back of a drawer.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.