Have you ever been to a silent disco? I have. They’re part fun, part haunting room of squeaking shoes and the occasional silent sing-along. The idea is a simple one – everyone gets a pair of headphones and they can choose to listen to the music of one of a range of DJs, and enjoy dancing with other people listening to different music.
For the one I was at, for example, one could choose between a DJ playing pop music, a DJ playing rock music, and a DJ playing drum & bass. You could switch easily between the three of them, making sure that you’d always be able to find something you like. With the headphones on, it’s a lot of fun – everyone else has music on, and you’re all dancing along, smiling, and laughing. Sometimes, your friend will come across a song you both like, check if you’re listening to it, and if not, excitedly tell you to change the station so that you can both dance along together.
Take the headphones off, however, and things quickly become dystopian. There’s relative silence, beyond the faint sounds of leaking headphones, people dancing, the occasional laugh, and the sound of the DJ pressing buttons. It’s eerie – go and watch a video of people dancing at a club and mute the sound. It’s like that, but in real life.
Now imagine that same scene… except everyone is blindfolded, and no one is getting laid.
Apple VR at Parties?
In one of Mark Gurman’s most recent pieces for Bloomberg (opens in new tab), he paints a vivid picture of the production woes that Apple VR has seen. Unconvinced analysts, detractors within Apple, and even non-belief in the realized concept from the man in charge, Tim Cook. It also cursorily glances at something that was in an Apple presentation and something that I now haven’t been able to get out of my head since first reading. According to Gurman’s sources:
“One internal presentation suggested that people will wear the headsets to parties in the physical world, interacting with people through the external devices”
I had to double-take. Then triple. And then once more for good measure – what on earth could this even mean? Take my VR headset to my mate’s party so that I can blur everyone else out and enjoy watching Severance season 2? Pretend I’m at a different party, one where I actually like everyone?
And then it hit me – Apple was thinking of Apple VR like the headphones at a silent disco.
The use case
I got it – and now I’m going to need you to do some imagining. A big black room, where you’re simply given a VR headset. You plonk it on, and then there’s a prompt:
Choose your environment:
- Victorian party
- Sci-fi club
- Titanic dance hall
You choose your environment and find yourself whisked off into a virtual world, surrounded by the other attendees and dancers. They’ve each chosen their own environments, their own otherworldly outfits, but you’re in the same room, the same physical space. It is a party, filled with people – and you can see them all on your headset, so you don’t crash into them.
Like the silent disco, everyone now has their own music and party to be a part of, while being able to dance with people experiencing something else. There could be virtual objects that you can interact with, that are different depending on the virtual world you’re inside. It sounds cool – you’re interacting with other people, and you’re sharing space with them. That’s social – right?
For some, yes. But now take the headset off – and the room will be even eerier than the room of the silent disco without the headphones on. A bizarre space filled with the blind, muddling around in the dark as they do their best to avoid dancing into someone else.
So I now understand why Apple wants us to – even if it was just an off-hand comment during a presentation – but I still don’t think anyone should. A VR headset at a party would just be another thing making it harder to speak to someone face to face, in an innately intimate and personable setting – and that, I think could be a problem.
Interestingly, there are some very important people both within Apple and close to Apple who agree about the social implications of the VR headset. Cook in particular is worried about the closed-in nature of the headsets, saying about the pioneers of the format, the HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear VR that “few people […] think it’s acceptable to be tethered to a computer walking in here and sitting down. Few people are going to view that it’s acceptable to be enclosed in something, because we’re all social people at heart.” Jony Ive as well was worried about “creating a product that isolated humans from one another.” You can be in the same room – but also totally disconnected from what’s going on around you.
There are social aspects to a mad VR party in a colony on Ganymede, but it’s ultimately completely disconnected from reality – and by extension the human interactions that we thrive on. It’s already a problem we face, highlighted by the stats around the loneliness epidemic that’s sprouting from tech overuse and social media reliance. With a VR headset strapped to your face, whether you can see other people out of it or not, you still have a big plastic and metal barrier to those around you that just being in the same room as someone simply doesn’t have.
Parties are full of life because you experience these things with people hand in hand and skin on skin – and you can see who you’re interacting with eye to eye. A VR headset makes that sound thoroughly unsexy – and who wants to be at a party devoid of any and all real-world sensuality?
Of course, we won’t know what Apple intends from the headset for at least another month – but as soon as WWDC 2023 rolls around, we’ll have a better idea of what the headset will look like, and how we’re expected to use it. Hopefully not like a silent disco.