Behold: The Apple Television

Behold: The Apple Television

A revolutionary new productivity tool. A truly amazing gaming device. And an insanely great content viewer. These were not three separate products,1 but instead, the promise of one product: the Vision Pro.

Unfortunately, at least for now, it sure feels like only the last of those experiences is the remarkable game-changer for Apple. That's a funny sentence – unfortunately only one remarkable game-changer! But it points to the need for Apple to quickly go all-in on this use case for now.

Yes, it's similar to the launch of the Apple Watch. A incredibly tiny computer on your wrist that might be good for this, that, or the other. It ended up finding its fit in the market, namely around fitness/health (and to some extent, information at-a-glance, via watch faces and/or push notifications). And now it's a massive success for Apple after those early wayward years.

Apple can run a similar playbook with Vision Pro, but the issue is that they clearly aspire for this device to be more: the device that ushers in a new era of computing. But it's clearly not there yet. There's a lot of promise, but a lot of work yet required. Oddly, I think Apple needs to think smaller here, to start. To pull the ambition back behind the curtain a bit. To double, triple, then quadruple down on the content aspect of the device. That's the winning early strategy.

Said another way: Apple finally created the fabled Apple Television.

A few years back, I wrote the following with regard to the Apple TV set top box:

Still, there is no actual Apple Television Set. And with each passing day, it’s looking more and more likely that there will never be. There are just more pressing projects, such as the AR/VR one. Oh, and the Apple Car fiasco. A low margin Apple television set seems as far away as it has ever been. And the only time it has truly seemed close was that Jobs quote.

That quote, spoken by Steve Jobs to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, shortly before his passing in 2011:

“I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

Again, as noted above, Jobs clearly wasn't talking about the Apple TV set top box. It sure sounded like another product, an actual television set. But what if everyone was reading that too literally and he did mean something entirely different. A true game-changer, Apple-style. Something like a new kind of television. One which seamlessly syncs to all of your devices via iCloud. One with no need for remotes. One with the simplest user interface you could imagine...

One you wear, perhaps. "Headphones for video" as it were.

I know, it's a bit of a stretch. But nevertheless, that is what Apple has stumbled upon here. Well, that's not fair. I think Apple knows exactly what they have from a content-perspective with the Vision Pro, I just think they're muddying the message with all of the other stuff they're trying to showcase. And in part, they may feel like they have to because the device is $3,500.

But while most television sets are cheap, there are a few higher end ones well above the $3,500 range. You're paying for state-of-the-art, which will rapidly come down in price. Relatively few people buy those sets, but they still exist. And it feels like Apple can take over that segment of the market with Vision Pro, if played right. And expand it. And go from there.

If you haven't used it yet, it really is hard to describe just how good content-viewing is on the Vision Pro. This is true for television shows, for Hollywood movies, for 2D content, for 3D content, for Apple-created experiences, for viewing your own images and videos, for viewing panoramic photos, and for spatial videos. They're all varying degrees of "holy shit" but they're all amazing in their own way.

I've spent the past few weeks watching the new Apple TV+ show Masters of the Air on (in?) the Vision Pro. It's amazing to behold. It feels far more grandiose and cinematic than it does on my (previously very impressive) 70" OLED TV.2 As someone who watches a lot of sports, relatively late at night – sometimes very late at night – by myself, this device was more or less built for that. Even before the content itself was built for it. Which is coming. Fast. The only real question is how fast the other leagues get on board. That Apple/MLS deal... smarter by the day.

More impressive still is Dune – in 3D.3 Aside from the original Avatar experience all those years ago, I've more or less hated the forced resurgence of 3D movies. But they work well in Vision Pro. Because they're less "3D" and more "visually immersive". Watching Dune in IMAX a few years back was the most impressive theatrical experience I can recall seeing. DO NOT TELL DENIS VILLENEUVE I'M SAYING THIS, but Dune in Vision Pro might be better. Certainly some aspects are better, if not exactly the aspect ratio. But you start the film and you are completely and utterly immersed. Certain scenes play as if you're lost in them, rather than watching them. Again, it's something that's hard to describe, but after the novelty of the device itself wears off, and you let yourself go, you truly feel one with the movie. Like you're breathing in it. The spice!

It's better than the vast majority of movie theaters you will go to. Maybe not the best IMAX theaters, but certainly the average theater.

And what's wild is that this cinematic content is not nearly as visually immersive as the actually immersive content which Apple shot (with special cameras) specifically for the device.

Even just the bits of content which Apple has ready on day one are truly incredible. Something not only better than on a regular television or cinema, but not even possible on those screens. Apple needs to be working as quickly as possible to ship more of these experiences at a regular cadence. And to break beyond the short ones included with the device (which really do just ultimately feel like demos of what's possible). I want a full movie presented this way. An entire sporting event. A full album recording session.4

It's all undoubtedly coming, but again, I think Apple needs to shift all available resources to these content consumption use cases immediately.

One other thought: will this new canvas lead to the creation of a new type of content that's different from television or film, or does it extend those concepts? Sort of in the way IMAX has been able to allow certain filmmakers to create even larger and more immersive cinema experiences, Vision Pro can do that to a new degree. That's why I've been genuinely curious what noted IMAX auteurs (and smartphone/streaming/etc haters) think about this device. The aforementioned Villeneuve and of course, Christopher Nolan. My guess is that their gut reaction will be to hate it. Perhaps less because it's from "big tech" but more because it removes the communal element of cinema.

I understand that. But I also think it's a mistake to think we shouldn't and can't have both. Cinema has evolved as an art form many times over the past century. There's no reason why this can't be another step.5

Others, like James Cameron and Jon Favreau are on the record with praise for the Vision Pro. Favreau is obviously biased as an early key Apple production partner here. But Cameron is someone whose opinion will carry weight. He's not only the director of several of the highest grossing films of all time, he's also often far out in front when it comes to the use of technology for the medium.6

Still, if the creative class truly jumps in to embrace content creation on the device, the Vision Pro could rather quickly become a must-have entertainment hub in the home. The awkward thing is how awkward it is: not only is it not a communal experience, it's a decidedly solo one. Apple will undoubtedly try to make it more social through software, but again, at least in these early days, they should probably embrace the single-player aspect of it. It's not a device to watch the latest movie with your whole family, it's the device that is going to give you the best possible experience when watching the movie by yourself.

That's a challenging message to deliver, but it's also the truth. Apple is going to hate such positioning. I mean, they created an entirely new and entirely superfluous feature in the form of EyeSight, to try to break out of such VR headset stereotypes. But ironically, their device is the most isolating yet for a single user because it's the most compelling! Yes, that has all kinds of negative connotations. The narratives around loneliness are not helping here. But being alone is okay sometimes too. (He says, as a relatively new parent.) Apple needs to get okay with that, quick.

Speaking of loneliness and heartstrings. Television is great. Movies are fantastic. Immersive experiences are bonkers. But it's the personal spatial content which is truly profound here.

Knowing it was coming, and with the latest iOS release, I've been recording spatial videos here and there from my iPhone. I mean, my god. When you put on the Vision Pro and watch those slowly populate via iCloud sync and then click on your first one... it's truly emotional. Unlike the above experiences, it's not just hard to describe, it may be impossible to describe. It's both a stunning technical achievement, but also an utterly moving new form of art.

The thing it's perhaps closest to, unfortunately, are the home videos in Steven Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report. I say unfortunately, because the way they're used in that movie is terribly sad. But the truth is that they would be here for the same reasons were the situation the same. The emotion would be similar, I can only imagine (thankfully). The good news is that the format works just as well in happy times. And again, there's not really words for it.

There are words for going back further in your own timeline and viewing old panoramic shots. This is something amazing Apple figured out how to do after-the-fact – take all those pixels of the past and wrap them around your face inside the Vision Pro. It's a weird experience, seeing a place you were once at in this way. Your mind actually does seem to want to believe you're actually back there given that it not only takes up your entire vantage point, but you can "explore" by turning your head. Very cool.7

Anyway, in many ways thinking of the Vision Pro as the Apple Television undersells it, obviously. But I think that framing could just help literally sell it. At $3,500, the device is still going to be too expensive for most people regardless of the use case. But for some, in particular those obsessed with movies, it might ultimately be worth it. But Apple isn't doing themselves any favors by trying to frame it as some sort of social-forward headset. That just calls out the ways in which it was always going to fail in this regard. Apple obviously put in a lot of work and has done better than anyone else here, but it's just impossible for such a device to be anything other than what it is, until the technology required to build it further improves. It will, but it will take time.

For now, Apple should just own having shipped the most kick-ass individual home-viewing experience ever created. Something so good that it may just lead to the creation of new classes of content. But first, Apple needs you to own it. To buy into the Vision. The Apple Television.

1 Yes, I use this bit quite often. It's just the best.

2 My only gripe is that I'm still in the fun phase of the Vision Pro where I keep fiddling with the various settings to see what the best possible viewing experience is each time I'm watching and "moving around" to test.

3 The first part, of course. I cannot wait for the second. Sooooon. On IMAX, of course. For now.

4 To me, the two best of these experiences are the Alicia Keys recording session and the cliff walker scene. They're both just incredible for different reasons. With Keys, you truly feel like you're right there with her. It's almost an awkward feeling it gives you at first. With the tightrope, I honestly had to stop the playback at points because I was getting too nervous. It's the same basic feeling as if you stand near a ledge and look down in the real world, if you're at all queasy about heights. It's wild.

5 Except, of course, that it would require another rethinking of the business model. And it's one cinemas probably aren't going to like. But that tension (and reality) existed long before Vision Pro.

6 Of course, there's a risk here that it's a bit like when Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos praised the Segway when it launched. Everyone can be blinded at times.

7 Also sort of wild to see Apple's camera systems get better over time as you leap from scene to scene, dating back years and many different iPhones (at last for me).