Jan 11, 2024 - Technology

Apple's tough pitch for "spatial computing"

Photo illustration of an apple wearing Apple's Vision Pro headset.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Apple is telling its developers to refer to the new Vision Pro headset as a "spatial computing" device rather than a virtual reality or augmented reality product.

Why it matters: The company's marching orders to business partners, released Tuesday, mark Apple's latest effort to use its reality distortion field to change the world — at least the world of marketing terms.

The big picture: Apple's announcement suggests it's eager to have us think of its $3500 headset, slated for a Feb. 2 release, not as a gaming product or a competitor to Meta's Quest VR line but as the start of a revolutionary reordering of the digital landscape a la the iPhone.

  • The company released an advertising trailer promoting the Vision Pro with echoes of the first commercial that promoted the iPhone.

Flashback: Apple — tech's richest and still largest (by market cap) giant, slightly ahead of Microsoft — has a track record of entering and redefining nascent market segments, from the original iPod and iPhone to tablets and watches.

  • The company's playbook has always been to say, "Our product is starting a whole new category!" — and then ignore the presence of competitors who were there first but failed to win over a mass market.

Between the lines: Apple aims to provide an entirely novel user experience with the Vision Pro, involving multiple floating screens and windows, gestural commands, mixed-reality pass-through video and other innovations.

  • "Spatial computing" — not a new term, but one previously confined to academic treatises and VR enthusiasts — is a reasonably accurate label for that vision, and Apple has been pushing the term since it unveiled the Vision Pro last year.

Yes, but: The name may be a hard sell, and hasn't yet entered everyday parlance.

  • "Spatial" sounds more like a geometry problem than a must-buy gadget.
  • "Computing" is no longer the first word that comes to mind when we think of the many roles digital technology plays in our lives.
  • "Spatial computing" feels like something you might get a Ph.D. in, not a hot new tech-product niche.

Be smart: Apple is betting on the unique gravitational pull of its brand and its marketing prowess to muscle a new market into being and set the Vision Pro apart from the niche-y and battered VR sector.

That might work. But there's also another tide Apple is pushing against.

  • Its pitch for spatial computing arrives at the peak of AI mania — a moment when everyday users, the tech media and Silicon Valley investors are all mesmerized by the potential of ChatGPT and its generative AI competitors.
  • The Vision Pro may well prove a model platform for new AI-based applications. Talking out loud with a chatbot could be the most convenient method for users to control and command the new device.
  • But Apple has been slow out of the AI gate — and right now, the chatbot explosion has sucked so much oxygen out of the tech room that even mighty Apple might be left gasping.

The bottom line: "Spatial computing" feels like an unusually flat-footed marketing move from a company that usually nails its names as perfectly as it nails its designs.

  • Then again, "iPad" was a lousy name that got roundly ridiculed before the product's release — and the tablet computer took off anyway.
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