Apple’s big (incremental) metaverse leap

Apple’s long-awaited Vision Pro virtual reality headset goes on sale this Friday, marking the first entry into the metaverse from a company almost synonymous with easy-to-use, stylish, revolutionary devices.

Apple leaves the “metaverse” branding to Meta, referring instead to the new headset as an instrument for “spatial computing” — a successor to mobile computing, the status quo where our necks are all craned 45 degrees down to look at our phones all day.

So far only a handful of tech publications have tried one out. Early reviews from publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Verge indicate that Apple has wildly succeeded where other companies have made only incremental progress, building something the former publication’s Joanna Stern wrote “feels sci-fi.”

“The Vision Pro is stunning compared to other VR headsets, which are largely plastic and often downright goofy-looking,” The Verge’s Nilay Patel admitted in an otherwise ambivalent review. While lamenting the inevitably bulky first-generation hardware, Wired’s Julian Chokkatu wrote that the “interface is polished and slick,” and that “The technology is impressive, and as it progresses it will inevitably shrink so that one day, you’ll just be wearing normal-looking glasses.”

It’s meaningful acclaim for arguably the most high-profile metaverse product launch yet, a technology the tech-world media has been declaring dead since not long after Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company after it. With its $3,500 price tag, the Vision Pro resembles nothing so much as another landmark product in Apple’s history: The Macintosh computer, which sold at the dawn of the personal computing era for $2,500 ($7,000 in today’s dollars). Like the Vision Pro, it was a trophy object for people who liked the look and feel, and who didn’t mind that there wasn’t yet all that much you could do with it.

“The price point and technology are still not quite there for mass adoption, but the fact that Apple is now in the game is a strong signal that this will become mainstream soon,” Zvika Krieger, a consultant and former director of responsible innovation at Meta, told me today. “I think it still needs 5-10 years, but that’s pretty soon… Some people are pointing to the weaknesses of the Vision Pro as a sign that the metaverse is just a pipe dream, but these companies (particularly Meta and Apple) are playing the long game here.”

Apple’s approach to the young metaverse ecosystem is, as usual for the company, somewhat different from the rest of the tech industry: It’s not participating in early industry groups like the Metaverse Standards Forum or XR Association, maintaining the now four-plus-decades of separation between its offerings and the rest of the digital world.

Still, those most invested from those groups are optimistic that its big investment will pay off for wider efforts to popularize virtual reality.

“The Apple headset is priced probably not for consumer uptake, but it’s exciting and it’s going to drive developers to create more content,” XRA president and CEO Liz Hyman told me earlier this year at CES. “It’s planting the seeds for that consumer uptake.”

What exactly is it that makes the Vision Pro such a leap over existing headsets? Early reviews — Digital Future Daily was not able to acquire a review copy, but Apple, if you’re reading, my inbox is open — say that its visual interface is seamless in a way other headsets have not been, with the WSJ’s Stern demonstrating a legitimately impressive integration of a recipe app with her real-life cooking experience (think a timer superimposed over the top of a boiling pot). Its work functions have also been widely praised, earning widespread comparisons to the high-tech future imagined in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.”

Intriguingly, one of the Vision Pro’s “killer apps” at least for now might be less about what goes on in front of your eyes than what goes on behind them. In keeping with its efforts to position itself as the most data privacy-friendly big tech company, the Vision Pro restricts sharing of biometric data with third-party apps — going a long way toward fighting one of the biggest policy concerns about metaverse technology.

Privacy watchdogs say that’s a promising goal, but one they plan on monitoring closely.

“In this way, the company tries to differentiate itself from its competitors in the XR market like Meta, which collects and shares users’ bodily data relatively liberally,” said Mariana Olaizola Rosenblat, a policy adviser on technology and law at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

“But we need to probe Apple’s promise closely,” she continued. “The company… has not updated its privacy policy since the Vision Pro’s unveiling, as far as I have seen, so the company’s promise that it will not collect or share users’ eye-tracking data through the Vision Pro remains just that: a promise.”

Congress is eager to embrace AI, but security experts warn they need to tighten their ship first.

POLITICO’s Katherine Tully-McManus reported for Pro subscribers last night on wariness of Congress’ ability to safeguard data, as it already begins to eagerly use AI for tasks like scheduling, correspondence, and even drafting legislation. Experts warn that leaks or vulnerabilities in AI systems could endanger constituent data or even threaten national security.

John Crocker, the House of Representatives’ deputy chief administrative officer, warned its Administration Committee that “Adversaries will also use these tools to try to harm the House” despite their “transformative potential.” The House’s Chief Administrative Office is expected to come out with a draft policy on AI use in the next two to three months, Katherine reports.

Congress might be dragging its feet on AI legislation, but the Biden administration is confident it can collaborate with the European Union to pick up the slack.

That’s what POLITICO’s Brendan Bordelon reported for Pro subscribers yesterday, as Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo spoke at the Atlantic Council alongside EU digital minister Margrethe Vestager. Raimondo said the relative blank slate of AI policy gives international regulators ample room to improvise and coordinate absent any legislative instruction from their home countries.

“Normally we go about our thing, other countries go about their thing, and then we try to harmonize,” Raimondo said. “With AI, we can harmonize from the get-go, because we haven’t yet written these regulations or rules or standards.”

Brendan writes that Raimondo singled out watermarking of AI-generated content and “red-teaming” security exercises as potential points of collaboration.