The Age of Goggles Has Arrived

“Vision Pro feels familiar, yet it’s entirely new.” That’s how Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, introduced the company’s new computer goggles at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. The Vision Pro headset, which resembles a glass scuba mask with a fabric head strap, seamlessly blends the real and digital worlds, Cook said. But the product’s name, which could just as easily describe a brand of contact-lens solution, hints at a challenge. Familiar yet entirely new, natural but augmented: If goggles really are the future of computing, they will have to overcome a bevy of conflicting sentiments.

As you might expect, Apple’s product is slick. The curved exterior looks 1980s-Bond-villain cool, and can light up to show the wearer’s eyes inside when someone is nearby. The pitch—that it’s a “wearable, spatial computer” with a “majestic viewing experience” in which “your surroundings become an infinite canvas”—is just as polished and seductive: Perhaps this headset represents the future.

Silent doubt infected Cook’s presentation, however. “We believe Apple Vision Pro is a revolutionary platform,” he declared, in an explicit appeal that may signal worry that it won’t be. He also said that the device “marks the beginning of a journey,” and then, again, that “this is just the beginning.” The beginning of a journey where, and why?

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Apple didn’t even march out the $3,500 goggles until the second half of the presentation. Cook and his team began with more than an hour’s worth of hammering on incremental changes to their other product lines—Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch—as if to wear the viewers down, to make them feel exhausted with the nonrevolutionary gadgets of the recent past. But the headset demo also acted as a lens to focus on the status quo. Apple’s presentation made it clear enough that, even with your headset on, Safari, Microsoft Word, and other prerevolutionary software will persist. “Your entire world is a canvas for apps,” a Vision Pro product manager said of the begoggled life, apparently without intent to cause despair.

Some of the goggles’ apps looked remarkable but felt essentially familiar: Enlarge a movie so it appears to fill the room; give a slide presentation while seeing your audience’s faces floating in space; project your laptop display above the desk without a monitor. Other software lets you see a three-dimensional, exploded view of the human heart for education, collaborate on the design of an Alfa Romeo F1 race car, approve a plan for assembly-line logistics, spin decks as a DJ. If this is the revolutionary future, it sure feels a lot like the present, but with your face in a computer.

Apple’s headset is not the first product of this kind to hit the market, but its entry is significant. Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Meta’s CTO and the head of its Reality Labs metaverse division, told me that VR is a “transformative” technology that will one day be ubiquitous. The age of goggles has arrived. Meta, Microsoft, HTC, and other firms are pumping tens of billions of dollars into this area and rolling out new products at a steady pace. Yet the nature, let alone the purpose, of their vision is still maddeningly unclear.

Back in the ancient times of 2021, the “metaverse” was the hottest trend in tech. Nobody really knew what it was exactly, only that avatars would soon be interacting in 3-D space, and that they might or might not have legs. Mark Zuckerberg, a man best known for starting your uncle’s favorite website, jumped in with both legless feet, even changing Facebook’s name to Meta. A few months later, Disney, one of the world’s biggest media companies, built up its metaverse division, with a mission to explore what its then-CEO called the “next great storytelling frontier.” Microsoft, the software, gaming, and cloud-computing giant, secured a contract to sell “mixed reality” goggles to the U.S. Army that could be worth nearly $22 billion over a decade.

All of this raised eyebrows at the time. But then computers started generating eyebrows that raised themselves. By the end of 2022, generative artificial intelligence had sucked all the hype out of the room. ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion, DALL-E 2, and other remarkable AI tools with silly names became hot, and piloting an avatar to virtual Taco Bell seemed even stupider than it did before. A metaverse backlash, already fully rooted, began to bloom. Microsoft’s military contract hit the skids, Disney laid off its entire metaverse team, and even Zuckerberg’s own employees seem not to have much time for the technology. The massive wealth involved in these decisions made the whole thing feel unprecedented, a boondoggle of a scale previously reserved for governments building fighter jets that can’t fly.

But backlash, too, can be inflated. It’s far too soon to say the hype has come to nought. Around 1980, Bill Gates imagined “a computer on every desk and in every home”—a preposterous idea at the time. When cellphones and then smartphones first appeared, they seemed like indulgent gadgets of the rich and self-important. Soon enough, everyone had one, or maybe several. Apple’s new goggles, or the ones that Facebook and Microsoft already sell, could one day make this unlikely leap from unthinkable to all we ever think about.

Admittedly, the early signs aren’t promising. By the end of 2011, nearly five years after the iPhone appeared, 1.2 billion smartphones had been sold. In the past five years, consumers bought fewer than 50 million sets of virtual-reality goggles, mostly for playing video games. But huge risks can lead to huge rewards. Google, IBM, and Microsoft plan to invest billions into quantum computing, a technology just as hard to understand as the metaverse, but in more of a boring, physics-nerdy way. As my colleague Glenn MacDonald, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told me when I asked him if all these tech companies had gone bananas, “It all depends on how you think about risk aversion.” If the metaverse eventually takes off, and goggling becomes as popular as Googling or Facebooking, then Cook, Zuckerberg, and other goggle optimists will have the last laugh.

During the Vision Pro announcement, Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, showed up too, as a corporate partner on the product launch. “The thing that struck me the most,” he said, “is how it will allow us to create deeply personal experiences.” But technological life already feels like a deluge of personal experiences. Will the ones that take place in goggles really prove more personal than those created by an iPhone, a television, or a pencil?

For the moment, byzantine branding matters and insider jargon cloud the goggle future further. Meta touts its headsets’ immersive VR, referring to a technology that has been around for decades (and which has often been fictionalized, in cyberpunk stories, as an exit from the hellscape of real life). Other companies, including Apple, say they’re working in “augmented reality” (AR), which means superimposing computer images atop a view of the world—a heads-up display for your life. Still more are selling headsets for “extended reality” (XR), a name that seems to indicate nothing more than a desire to avoid choosing between AR and VR. And I suppose one should not forget “mixed reality” (MR), the term applied to Microsoft’s goggles (but which doesn’t seem that different from the others), or “spatial computing” (the term preferred by Apple during its presentation).

If you’re bored by all of these buzzwords, I don’t blame you. So let’s simplify: We’re talking about goggles with computers in them. Eyeglasses with smartphones in them. You’ve got a laptop; you’ve got a phone, maybe a tablet, perhaps a watch; maybe you’ve even got a drone. You’ll have goggles too, maybe.

But what will you do with them? If the answer amounts to playing video games (but inside goggles) or attending Zoom meetings (but inside goggles), or doing military exercises or industrial training or word processing (but inside goggles), then the whole thing does seem like flimflam. Apple’s pitch, as far as I can tell at this early stage, is more technically refined but still confounding: a very cool computer on your face. But still, to what end?

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A couple of weeks ago, I asked Meta’s Boz to tell me, concretely, what this new kind of computing is really for. The answer? It’s for bowling. “Bowling is fucking weird,” Boz said. “We go bowling; we go golfing—why?” He concluded that we do these things as excuses to spend time together, and that “the metaverse will be serving a need like that for a lot of people.” In other words, people will don VR/AR/XR/MR headsets to hang out with their friends’ and colleagues’ avatars in virtual spaces. They’ll goggle so they can commune.

For the moment, most goggling experiences are solo, in part because so few people own their own headset. When I first got a Quest headset a couple of years ago, I tried watching movies (it was fine), visiting virtual tourist sites (eh), doing exercise (absolutely not), and playing games (some are good! Some are not). But I’ve found that Boz is right in saying that socializing in VR can feel like something new and different. One of the few headset apps I’ve really enjoyed is Walkabout Mini Golf. It’s, you know, virtual-reality mini golf. But when I play it with my son, who lives in a different city, the banter of the game takes priority over putting. We chat and move around a hole as shots progress, to look at a lie, get out of each other’s way, or just mill about in virtual space. Being there, and being people, is in the foreground; the game is just a way of hanging out.

This degree of presence isn’t always necessary, Boz told me, but sometimes it’s essential. “You know that ‘This is not a phone email’ feeling?” he said. And yes, I do: You start to write an important message to a friend or colleague and realize that tapped-out letters on a little smartphone screen simply don’t seem right for the activity. The same is true for hanging out. Email, telephone, and texts have their place, as does Zoom. Goggles provide another option, for when you want or need it.

[Read: We’re already living in the metaverse]

Surely Boz was making reference to the political scientist Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. Putnam argued that institutions such as churches, neighborhoods, and, yes, bowling leagues once provided social glue, but generational and technological change have pulled Americans apart and left us in a constant state of disconnection. Bowling Alone was published in 2000, a couple of years after Google was created and a few before the launch of Facebook. Social media offered a weak solution to the problem that the book identified. New technology certainly made people more social, in the sense that it put them in contact with a greater number of other people much more often, but it also had a way of amplifying loneliness and anxiety, and spawning new associations—such as anime fandoms and QAnon—that functioned less as reality than fantasy.

Now, perhaps, goggling could be the total cure. To bowl together, virtually, is to participate in a more intimate, prosocial life online—and one that tends to make the offline world ever less important. “With the exception of food,” Boz said hopefully, the metaverse may end up satisfying “all the reasons we leave our house.”  

In another vision of the goggle age, headsets are for going places. The internet began with metaphors of travel: You visited a website by traveling the information superhighway. Geocities organized homepages into geographical neighborhoods: Hollywood, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive. You had to go online, explicitly coupling your computer, in your house, with the network of networks that composed the internet. Surfing was slow and laborious, and moving from one site to a different one really felt like a traversal.

But whatever distinctiveness there was among many places on the web during the 1990s would soon be flattened out. Eventually, everything online began to feel the same. You have a glass rectangle like everyone else’s, which holds a grid of apps, which hold different chats that all look the same. Now the internet is everywhere and no place in particular.

Maybe goggles can recover some of what the internet has lost. One might use them not to foster or exploit connections (as in the old—and failed—mission of social media) but to slow down and go somewhere rather than tapping and scrolling and posting into oblivion.

Going somewhere online could, of course, serve many mundane purposes. AR and VR (and XR and MR) are already becoming useful in design, construction, safety training, medicine, and therapy. Goggle to meet with your contractor; goggle because your employer requires it for compliance training. Headsets may also be a way to visit and enjoy simple entertainments: Goggle to the music club or to the Super Bowl.

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More high-minded aims and destinations have also been tried out. One of my most memorable goggle encounters, now a decade old, was a VR guillotine simulator. You put the goggles on, stuck your head in the stocks, and waited. Then black. A year later, the journalist Nonny de la Peña created Project Syria, a VR visit to Aleppo. By taking users to places where they would or could not really go, the technology offered empathy or awe via translocation.

John Vechey, a co-founder of Pluto VR and a former video-game executive, still believes in this idea. Working with the Indigenous-led nonprofit Se’Si’Le, he told me he is raising money to embody people in the plight of Lolita, an orca. The Miami Seaquarium plans to release the killer whale to the Pacific Northwest waters where she was captured more than 50 years ago. For Vechey, the importance of that ocean habitat cannot be communicated with words or even moving images. With goggles, though, he told me, “we can give people a sense of the vastness of the sea, and then put them in the aquarium that she’s been in since [being captured], like being in an eight-by-eight jail cell by comparison.” At the Apple presentation, Iger presented a similar future of immersive naturescapes created by Disney’s National Geographic division.

For goggling to become a superordinate category of technological life—and thereby, real life—we’d need lots of places to go. And yet, the potential power of these journeys might well be sapped by oversaturation. At some point, we could have countless goggle apps shoveled into platforms’ stores. When you’re wearing goggles all day long to do your work, take your calls, and then watch movies, I’m guessing you’ll feel a desperate urge to take them off. You’ll want to go anywhere, literally anywhere, that isn’t still inside of them.

Sure, I’d like to see my son for mini golf and take a swim with killer whales—but doing so wouldn’t have to mean the end of all conventional computers. Not everything needs to be a revolution to bear value. Goggles could just be for things you do sometimes and enjoy, like bowling with your friends. In theory, the new technology could end up being useful, modest, and low-key.

But if that’s the case, then how will goggles ever justify the tens of billions of dollars that have been bet on their universal adoption? Proponents of the goggle age are unperturbed by this conundrum. When pressed, they raise what I’d call the nerd’s objection. Every new, transformative device, they say, seems like a toy in the beginning, with narrow uses. Headsets are no different.

But goggles have been around for decades, in one form or another, and they’ve always seemed like toys. Even if that impression really were about to change, it is not clear what the goggles’ reinvention of computing would mean for contemporary life. The purpose of the goggle age is to make goggles second nature. Once that has been achieved, they may end up giving you less frequent, more meaningful encounters with people and places. Or they could make computing even more consuming, a constant feed to your eyeballs rather than a nearly constant glow in your palm. Or maybe they’ll just offer you a strange new way of doing the same old things.

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