They talked about the optics. They talked about the computer specs. They talked about the “lenticular glass” and the “new spatial computing platform” and the “aluminum alloy” used in the “primary structural element.”
But the one thing Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, and Mike Rockwell, the head of the AR/VR team, and the rest of the Apple executives involved in the introduction of the new Apple Vision Pro, the long-awaited augmented reality headset, did not really discuss was the actual look of the thing.
Yet if they want people to believe that it will “shift the way we look at technology and the role it plays in our lives,” as Mr. Cook put it during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, how we will look when wearing it matters. After all, what they are talking about it not just something you may use every day. It’s something that in order to use, you have to put on every day. And not just put on, but put on your face.
That’s an incredibly personal act, one that isn’t just about interacting with technology, but interacting with the world around us. It’s about the messages we send to others about who we are and what we value, and the judgments others make about us in return. We know from wearing masks to combat Covid that any item that covers part of a face is an item that becomes an emotive lightning rod.
So what does the Apple Vision Pro, which many viewers said looks like pretty sleek gray and black ski goggles with a 3D-printed ribbed fabric band that circles the head. But what does it say about its wearer?
Maybe, I’m a supercool couch slalom master from a land far, far away. Or an evolved species of alien ant.
The truth is, it’s a little hard to know — not just because I am assessing it from far away, but because none of the people involved in the Vision Pro demonstration modeled the headset. Not Mr. Cook or Bob Iger of Disney, who surprised the audience with an appearance to announce a deal to show Disney programming on the headset, or Mr. Rockwell. Which raised a question: Why didn’t they wear it?
Maybe they were concerned that they would look silly. (There is an unfortunate mouselike tail on the headset dangling down by one ear, which is the cable that connects the battery pack.) That the pictures of them looking silly in their new product would then be made into memes, and that … well, you know what happens next. Social media mockery!
There were pictures, of course, of the goggles looking very sleek against a black background. There was a neat video of assorted happy individuals using the product in the comfort of their pristine rose-tinted homes and anonymous hotel rooms.
But the lack of an actual person strutting the stage in Cupertino, Calif., wearing the product was a notable omission. As was the fact that no one talked about the design except in terms of its functionality — and the fact that the device allows others to see a wearer’s eyes, a real step forward in the world of headset style. (They also didn’t utter the word “wearables.”)
Yet, if any company should know how much aesthetics matter in transforming a piece of tech into an accessory for life, it is Apple. That has always been part of its distinction, beginning with the iMac in its many colors. It’s how the iPod and the iPhone made the leap from consumer goods to markers of taste and identity. With their rounded corners and slim lines, they just looked so good; so sleek and cool. They spurred desire, the way a great handbag does, even before utility is taken into consideration.
And there may be no device Apple has made where aesthetics will matter as much as on this one.
There’s no hiding it. This may be why tech companies have struggled with glasses, an accessory they are seemingly convinced is some sort of next frontier in personal tech, but which no one has ever quite cracked: not Google with its glasses or Meta with its Ray-Ban collaboration or its Balmain x Oculus. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, what you put around them matters in a sort of profound way.
By making the Vision Pro look like goggles, Apple is wading into the shoals of pre-existing stereotypes, personality clichés and history. We choose glasses for all sorts of reasons: to look smart, to look cool, to look glamorous; to look like Gloria Steinem or Jack Nicholson or John Lennon. Most of all, to look individual. And walking around with half your face covered by glass, no matter how swirly the screen, is a signifier for pod people. (On the other hand, if you secretly harbor fantasies of looking like Eileen Gu, this may be for you.)
To be fair, maybe that will change. Maybe by the time the headset arrives in stores next year, priced at about $3,500, the headstraps will be available in a variety of colors and materials, and the device itself will come in a shade other than putty, allowing some form of self-expression. Maybe it will be possible to bedazzle the goggles (that would be fun) or add stickers or decorate the cord. Apple has clearly worked pretty hard on the fit, with all sorts of adjustable components, which is something. And it weighs only about a pound.
Maybe Apple is betting that ultimately the tech appeal will trump fashion, though its experience with the watch would suggest that’s an incorrect assumption. Or perhaps, like the watch, this is an acknowledgment that design, when it comes to Apple, is now a secondary consideration. Jony Ive, the man who, along with Steve Jobs, was most responsible for establishing its style vocabulary, stepped back from the company in 2019.
That may also be why the big Vision Pro reveal video featured people using the headset when they were by themselves or, at most, with their family around, as opposed to in any sort of public space. (OK, one person was on an airplane, though arguably that’s a place where you want to pretend there’s no one else around.)
Because the fact is, while no one wants to look like a fashion victim, no one wants to look like a victim of fashions in tech, either.