How to think about Apple and spatial computing

It might not yet be clear where Apple’s visionOS (and Vision Pro headset) aims to go. But for enterprise technology decision makers, one way to understand it all is to study what the company itself says. First, where isn’t it going?

According to Apple, it isn’t trying to invent products for use in virtual, augmented, mixed, or even extended reality (VR, AR, XR, or MR). Sure, Vision Pro could support such experiences, but those need to be seen as adjunctive to a bigger ambition.

So, what is that ambition?

Typically, Apple puts its cards on the table up front, but even those watching its hand fall often need more time to understand what it means. It’s in those terms we must consider the phrase it’s used since announcing visionOS: “spatial computing.”

What’s interesting about the phrase is that it was easy at first to see it as little more than an attempt to rebrand all those other experiences (VR et al) into an Apple marketing mantra. But that isn’t correct.

The term itself was first coined by Simon Greenwold in an MIT master thesis as,  “…human interaction with a machine in which the machine retains and manipulates referents to real objects and spaces.”

He called it “an essential component for making our machines fuller partners in our work and play.”

The name tells us that Apple’s intention is that a coming range of Vision devices will become a full-fledged computer platform in their own right. These are not ephemeral devices.

How do we know this? Because of how Apple is asking developers to refer to their apps when listed on Apple’s App Store. It doesn’t want app descriptions to include words or phrases such as VR, AR, XR, or MR. Instead, it is requiring they be described as “spatial computing experiences,” or “Vision apps.”

This hints at Apple’s ambitions and suggests an intention to explore where these solutions make the most difference. We know enterprise-focused developers are already curious about Apple’s new platform.

For example, the Omni Group today announced its first Vision-enabled app will be its powerful project management solution, OmniPlan.

In theory, at least, it means the Apple product might become a fantastic tool for managing incredibly complex projects using Gantt charts as long as the room you are in. You’ll zoom in and out, and (conceivably) take meetings, explore 3D interactive project assets, and more from wherever you happen to be. These technologies combine the best of presence with powerful computing.

In the coming weeks we’ll see other examples that hint at how these products could  make a significant difference in some businesses.

Who will win the Apple Developer Awards for visionOS?

The best of these won’t be built around immersive experiences for entertainment, gaming, or the other slightly more trivial use cases that seem to define this part of silicon town. I imagine the Apple Developer Awards for visionOS will reward those attempting to build experiences that fully exploit the potential of these products. Over time, we’ll see more use cases emerge.

Apple has always anticipated this kind of pattern. Speaking back in 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook put it thusly: “Think back to 2008 when the App Store went live,” he said. “There was the initial round of apps, and people looked at them and said, ‘This is not anything; mobile apps are not going to take off.’”

Today, we use apps for millions of tasks, and while the number of relevant tasks in visionOS may or may not match that number, it will grow.

Once you understand the scope of Apple’s ambition, it should be clear why it is exploring a different opportunity space than the entertainment-focused vision most similar products are exploring. (Though Apple isn’t ignoring entertainment, as evidenced by the 150 3D movies that will be available the day Vision Pro ships.)

More Minority Report than Meta

That “spatial computing” space is a synthesis of technologies in which almost every computing task we do today becomes a wearable task.

It’s one in which Macs do indeed become a computer we wear like sunglasses, which could yet unleash profound opportunities. Or not. We don’t know yet.

Of course, there will be a curve to tech adoption here. At the start, visionOS will be a relative platform minnow, not least as a consequence of the $3,500 price tag on the soon-to-ship Vision Pro.

However, as developers and Apple itself strive to identify those use cases in which these systems make the biggest difference, the reasons to invest in these contraptions will expand. Apple will diversify the product range and we think plans to make the headsets (which it doesn’t want developers to call headsets) more affordable.

In other words, as the cost of the devices falls, the number of usage cases will increase — and we’ll all gain better insight into where this synthesis of wearable, mobile, presence, and reality distortion technologies make the most difference.

Where will you use a spatial computer?

Returning to that Gantt chart, imagine you are a product designer working with a manufacturing partner in a different country. If there’s a problem on the production line, you and your partner can both don your Apple headsets and explore the factory. You’ll be able to see with their eyes, with both of you also seeing any relevant diagnostic information overlaid on what you see. You’ll be able to remotely diagnose faults, and the person you are working with may even be able to rectify them with your assistance.

That kind of tech also lends itself to use on construction sites, for utilities management, exploration, search and rescue, military, medical, and more. Any situation in which remote presence and on-device computing can be applied is open to spatial computing.

When (as it will, of course, eventually be) combined with the kind of narrow, focused intelligence we will see emerge as the cream of the GenAI crop over the next year or two, Apple’s spatial platform could act as an accelerant to ignite yet another series of digital transformation events that transform industries, just as iPhone has already done.

Despite its ambition, Apple might not succeed. It might fail to set the world alight with its vision for spatial computing. Over time, developers and customers could find the experiences enabled aren’t a significant improvement over what’s already here.

Time will tell.

How to think about Apple and spatial computing

Succeed or fail, rather than looking at these as consumer electronics items, or as a faddish new way to watch a big TV during long haul flights (though for some that may be enough of a reason to get hold of a set on expenses), decision-makers must understand that what Apple is trying to build is a new computing paradigm.

What it will do next is try to show how its new platform will make a difference to you and your business. Perhaps you should think about that?

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Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.


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