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The age of the eye computer

We're entering a new age of computation you wear on your face, with your eyes as the primary interface. What does this mean for the future of design?

When I was in maybe 7th grade, my (really great) computer teacher told me he planned to buy his wife a VR headset. I (somewhat offensively) asked, "are those good?" They weren't, really. And surprisingly to all those who might have assumed we'd be like LTC La Forge in Star Trek, wearing our VISOR-esque devices everywhere and seeing UI projected in front of us.

Since then, VR/AR has never really seemed to get past the novelty stage. The tech chugged along in development, most notably pushed by Palmer Lucky through Oculus and Meta's backing of it. Some people bought Oculus Rifts, others HTC Vives, but I've only ever met a few people who had them. They didn't make a lot of sense and the value prop never really seemed to land with the consumer. And there were exciting up-and-comers, too, like Magic Leap. But again, nothing has panned out.

The Magic Leap headset

All that changed this past year with Apple's announcement of the Apple Vision Pro, a device that promises to be such a radical departure from the AR/VR conversation to date that they (wisely, in my view) didn't mention these acronyms once during its unveiling. Like with all technology, a part of this advancement is hardware: we can finally get enough compute power, sufficient sensing, and convincing enough screen technology into a headset to sell the VR/AR illusion. And that's important; this kind of tech is incredibly sensitive to that quality bar. Humans are such visual creatures that we can easily feel nauseous at even the slightest latency or pixelation.

Apple Vision Pro

Now it feels like VR/AR, or rather, as it's come to be known, spatial computing, is about to be booming. We've gone from the device in an office, to our house, to our pocket, to our wrist, and increasingly, we're seeing UI appear directly in front of us at all times.

And then the other day I came across Sol, a sort of Kindle in glasses form that is unrecognizable from a design ambition standpoint to that device. It's absolutely gorgeous, perhaps outshined only by its marketing and brand design.

Sol

It's incredible that these devices are being announced at this kind of quality bar from a design standpoint. It really is an exciting time when even the first version of hardware increasingly places design at its center. But perhaps more profoundly, it's exciting that we're now witnessing the birth of a truly new interaction design paradigm. What does it mean to design a computer for your face? An interface that seems to hover in the physical space you also directly inhabit? It's not just the hardware that's a game changer—it's the concept of the digital interface as indistinguishable from physical interfaces like those humanity has known since the invention of basic tools.

There have been a few major innovations in interface design:

  • The physical tool (eg. a wrench, a spear)
  • The physical tool that controls a digital environment (physical buttons on a control panel, the mouse, the keyboard)
  • The direct manipulation of that digital environment (multitouch surfaces, some aspects of voice control)
  • And now, perhaps in a way we might describe as truly coming full-circle, the digital environment as physical tool

This is a profound revolution in computing, and regardless of how these particular devices catch on, it appears that this experiential innovation of a final blurring of digital and physical space is upon us.

Apple Vision Pro's VisionOS places UI directly into the built environment
Ideas

The age of the eye computer

When I was in maybe 7th grade, my (really great) computer teacher told me he planned to buy his wife a VR headset. I (somewhat offensively) asked, "are those good?" They weren't, really. And surprisingly to all those who might have assumed we'd be like LTC La Forge in Star Trek, wearing our VISOR-esque devices everywhere and seeing UI projected in front of us.

Since then, VR/AR has never really seemed to get past the novelty stage. The tech chugged along in development, most notably pushed by Palmer Lucky through Oculus and Meta's backing of it. Some people bought Oculus Rifts, others HTC Vives, but I've only ever met a few people who had them. They didn't make a lot of sense and the value prop never really seemed to land with the consumer. And there were exciting up-and-comers, too, like Magic Leap. But again, nothing has panned out.

The Magic Leap headset

All that changed this past year with Apple's announcement of the Apple Vision Pro, a device that promises to be such a radical departure from the AR/VR conversation to date that they (wisely, in my view) didn't mention these acronyms once during its unveiling. Like with all technology, a part of this advancement is hardware: we can finally get enough compute power, sufficient sensing, and convincing enough screen technology into a headset to sell the VR/AR illusion. And that's important; this kind of tech is incredibly sensitive to that quality bar. Humans are such visual creatures that we can easily feel nauseous at even the slightest latency or pixelation.

Apple Vision Pro

Now it feels like VR/AR, or rather, as it's come to be known, spatial computing, is about to be booming. We've gone from the device in an office, to our house, to our pocket, to our wrist, and increasingly, we're seeing UI appear directly in front of us at all times.

And then the other day I came across Sol, a sort of Kindle in glasses form that is unrecognizable from a design ambition standpoint to that device. It's absolutely gorgeous, perhaps outshined only by its marketing and brand design.

Sol

It's incredible that these devices are being announced at this kind of quality bar from a design standpoint. It really is an exciting time when even the first version of hardware increasingly places design at its center. But perhaps more profoundly, it's exciting that we're now witnessing the birth of a truly new interaction design paradigm. What does it mean to design a computer for your face? An interface that seems to hover in the physical space you also directly inhabit? It's not just the hardware that's a game changer—it's the concept of the digital interface as indistinguishable from physical interfaces like those humanity has known since the invention of basic tools.

There have been a few major innovations in interface design:

  • The physical tool (eg. a wrench, a spear)
  • The physical tool that controls a digital environment (physical buttons on a control panel, the mouse, the keyboard)
  • The direct manipulation of that digital environment (multitouch surfaces, some aspects of voice control)
  • And now, perhaps in a way we might describe as truly coming full-circle, the digital environment as physical tool

This is a profound revolution in computing, and regardless of how these particular devices catch on, it appears that this experiential innovation of a final blurring of digital and physical space is upon us.

Apple Vision Pro's VisionOS places UI directly into the built environment
Updated continuously • Last edited on
11.17.23
Ideas

The age of the eye computer

When I was in maybe 7th grade, my (really great) computer teacher told me he planned to buy his wife a VR headset. I (somewhat offensively) asked, "are those good?" They weren't, really. And surprisingly to all those who might have assumed we'd be like LTC La Forge in Star Trek, wearing our VISOR-esque devices everywhere and seeing UI projected in front of us.

Since then, VR/AR has never really seemed to get past the novelty stage. The tech chugged along in development, most notably pushed by Palmer Lucky through Oculus and Meta's backing of it. Some people bought Oculus Rifts, others HTC Vives, but I've only ever met a few people who had them. They didn't make a lot of sense and the value prop never really seemed to land with the consumer. And there were exciting up-and-comers, too, like Magic Leap. But again, nothing has panned out.

The Magic Leap headset

All that changed this past year with Apple's announcement of the Apple Vision Pro, a device that promises to be such a radical departure from the AR/VR conversation to date that they (wisely, in my view) didn't mention these acronyms once during its unveiling. Like with all technology, a part of this advancement is hardware: we can finally get enough compute power, sufficient sensing, and convincing enough screen technology into a headset to sell the VR/AR illusion. And that's important; this kind of tech is incredibly sensitive to that quality bar. Humans are such visual creatures that we can easily feel nauseous at even the slightest latency or pixelation.

Apple Vision Pro

Now it feels like VR/AR, or rather, as it's come to be known, spatial computing, is about to be booming. We've gone from the device in an office, to our house, to our pocket, to our wrist, and increasingly, we're seeing UI appear directly in front of us at all times.

And then the other day I came across Sol, a sort of Kindle in glasses form that is unrecognizable from a design ambition standpoint to that device. It's absolutely gorgeous, perhaps outshined only by its marketing and brand design.

Sol

It's incredible that these devices are being announced at this kind of quality bar from a design standpoint. It really is an exciting time when even the first version of hardware increasingly places design at its center. But perhaps more profoundly, it's exciting that we're now witnessing the birth of a truly new interaction design paradigm. What does it mean to design a computer for your face? An interface that seems to hover in the physical space you also directly inhabit? It's not just the hardware that's a game changer—it's the concept of the digital interface as indistinguishable from physical interfaces like those humanity has known since the invention of basic tools.

There have been a few major innovations in interface design:

  • The physical tool (eg. a wrench, a spear)
  • The physical tool that controls a digital environment (physical buttons on a control panel, the mouse, the keyboard)
  • The direct manipulation of that digital environment (multitouch surfaces, some aspects of voice control)
  • And now, perhaps in a way we might describe as truly coming full-circle, the digital environment as physical tool

This is a profound revolution in computing, and regardless of how these particular devices catch on, it appears that this experiential innovation of a final blurring of digital and physical space is upon us.

Apple Vision Pro's VisionOS places UI directly into the built environment

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