Irony alert: The phrase “reality distortion field,” famously coined by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, is itself a reality distortion. Apple executive Bud Tribble claims he took it from a 1966 star trek episode, “The Menagerie”, about reality warping aliens, in which the words “warp field” do not appear. But because he said it, the Internet… including Wikipedia(opens in a new tab) – has decided that this origin story is the truth of the gospel.
That said, there’s no problem with Tribble’s characterization. Jobs truly had an unshakeable and contagious certainty that his idealized view of computing was superior to the supposed facts on the ground. The Macintosh team saw it in their ridiculous demands and deadlines. So did the iMac team, to whom Jobs literally screamed and cried over the then-impossible task of removing his CD tray. Many of us at the iPhone’s unveiling in 2007, six months before the product launched, laughed at its weird on-screen keyboard, its $500 price tag (you could buy two BlackBerrys for that! ) and its unique mobile operator, Cingulaire.
Back to the iPhone launch keynote, 15 years later
In each of these cases, the reality distortion field has become our star trek future sooner or later. The original Macintosh, rushed, underpowered and overpriced, was a commercial failure that nonetheless forever changed the face of computing, just as Jobs foretold. The second generation iMac swallowed platterless discs. And the iPhone, thanks to its true supporters and rapid iteration, has transformed the struggling Apple into the most profitable company in the world.
Jobs knew that if you built an expensive 1.0 version as close to perfection as possible and wowed the public, operators and developer-designed applications (originally called “widgets”) would come. That in turn would make 2.0, and beyond, an increasingly inescapable gimmick.
Seen through the Jobs-style distortion lens, this week’s splashy but disconcerting Apple Vision Pro announcement makes a lot of sense. The price of $3,500? It’s actually half the cost of the original Macintosh, in today’s dollars. Developers and die-hard Apple fans will pay, and their creativity and feedback will greatly improve subsequent, lighter versions. THE smooth but strangely dystopian videos(opens in a new tab)? It is the equivalent of Macintosh Super Bowl Announcement(opens in a new tab)designed to get people talking months before its launch (the Vision Pro will hit the US market in early 2024).
Apple’s Vision Pro AR headset, unveiled at WWDC 2023.
Bringing Disney CEO Bob Iger on stage to talk about the Vision Pro might seem like an odd choice; after all, few of us are likely to watch Disney+ on AR headsets rather than TV screens. Even with a few augmented reality bells and whistles, passive entertainment isn’t the point of buying a Vision Pro. By focusing on this, Apple was exposed to the accusation, as Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg put it, that “every demo was a person sitting on a couch all alone.”
So why do it? Well, first because it’s an easy way to show off the quality of the Retina display: good enough for watching movies, in theory! But it also highlighted Disney’s involvement, which happened for the same reason Jobs brought the CEOs of Google and Yahoo, then the two search giants, to his iPhone unveiling: more there are heavy hitters involved, the more inevitable the product seems to the mainstream user, the more you’ll hear about it around the water cooler. There’s no heavyweight brand like Disney – nor, thanks to Iger and Jobs’ longtime friendship, friendlier to Apple.
The cook is in the kitchen
Jobs’ successor, Tim Cook, had until this week ensured continuity in everything except the reality distortion field. Essentially what Apple released during the CEO’s tenure were multi-touch screens of various sizes, from the smallest watch to the largest iPad, as well as Macs with minor tweaks and a hard-to-find streaming service. differentiate from its competitors.
Tim Cook speaks before the start of Apple’s WWDC 2023 in Cupertino, California.
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Not that these products weren’t lucrative. But Jobs’ slogan for Apple was not “think alike”. He was keen to push the boundaries of what well-made technology can do for a simplicity-loving mainstream audience, even when he wasn’t quite sure how we’d use the wide open spaces of the uncharted territory it was opening up.
The Vision Pro, thankfully, has that approach written all over it. Its lack of a handheld controller, its complete reliance on hand recognition and eye tracking – users pinch or simply look at something to select it – are reminiscent of what Jobs said about the stylus-less iPhone: “We We’re going to use the best pointing device in the world. We’re going to use a pointing device that we’re all born with — born with ten of them. (In this case, add two eyes and make it 12.)
Use them for what, exactly? Jobs was unaware that he was enabling a future of thumb scrolling in newsfeeds (his demos were much more pinch-and-zoom oriented). He didn’t need it either. The purpose of the reality warping field is to create true believers, draw them into the vision, and let them understand.
With the Vision Pro, Apple set out to create the most well-designed, simple and high-tech headset possible with today’s technology. He made the headset a mixed reality – AR or VR – because it offers the most possibilities. Getting started with AR makes it less scary for the average user. This is something Zuckerberg does not understand; Meta’s CEO seems to bet most people want to escape to a virtual world of digital avatars.
Maybe we would, if Zuck had a reality warping field in his arsenal. The disappointing reaction to his Quest headset and metaverse suggests that’s not the case.
The Meta Quest 2 just got $100 cheaper
Is the Vision Pro still a little too clunky for an Apple product? Of course it is. There’s the equivalent of CD trays all over this thing – the strap, the inevitable comparison to ski goggles. They will go away. When you step into the realm of reality warping, it’s easy to see a future where continued (albeit slower) advances in Moore’s Law reduce this level of technology to a cool pair of glasses.
The awkwardness is why you won’t see any photos of Cook wearing the headset, and why Apple hasn’t allowed reporters to take candid photos of themselves trying it out. It would spoil the delicate balancing act of the warp field, which thrives on a bit of mystery and imagination.
The buzzing response — fueled by memes, jokes and disbelief as much as cautiously enthusiastic reviews — suggests it works. In an instant, Cook steered the entire conversation away from the world of AI technology (which he staunchly refused to mention) and towards a vision of a future where we do our computing through AR interfaces. NOW It is a Star Trek-style reality warp field.