The price of progress in AR and VR: the dark shadow of the Apple Vision Pro

AR and VR technology is developing rapidly. Voys founder Mark Vletter talks about the dark shadow of the Apple Vision Pro.

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Mark Vletter
24 May 2024
Clock 4 min

I am standing in a modern conference room in Utrecht with Herman, a professional [maker], and Mariska, who is an applied psychologist. One nerd at heart, the other daily working with our human side.

Herman looks up and slowly turns around. On his head is the Apple Vision Pro. Mariska looks at it and looks at me. “This is so crazy,” she says. “He’s physically here, but his soul has left the building.”

In a room with only nerds, Mariska is the outsider. But with this one comment, she names something that I totally missed. Something much bigger than AR or VR. Something fundamental to our being.

Individualization

In recent years, personal freedoms and choices have become increasingly central to our society. As a society, our focus has shifted. Where once the collective was central, we now value self-expression and autonomy. This development is called individualization. The rise of the internet and social media has further reinforced the process of individualization.

The negative effects of individualization spurred by technology

Individualization has impacted our relationships with others tremendously, with both positive and negative consequences. However, I see the negative consequences getting worse. Relationships are becoming increasingly unstable. Social isolation is increasing. The sense of community is declining. And the quality of our communication is declining. We are simply less connected to each other.

The silent relationship breaker

The smartphone is one of the drivers of those negative consequences. How many times do you grab your smartphone while you are busy with your partner, friends or your children? Attention to a device, instead of attention to the people you are with at that moment and care about. The phenomenon has now gotten a name of its own: phubbing.

And now you may be thinking, “then I’ll leave the device,” but even when the smartphone is visibly on the table, it lowers the quality of face-to-face interactions. It takes depth and meaning out of personal conversations, and those happen to be essential for building strong relationships.

The power of emotional connection

The smartphone sucks us into our own world and takes us away from the shared world. How being together and being apart feels different is something you can easily test for yourself. At night on the couch, watch a fun movie with your partner. Or both grab your smartphones and each watch whatever you want to watch separately while sitting on the couch together. Both feel very different, don’t they? There are a number of reasons for that.

When you watch TV together, you share a common focus and activity. This is known as joint attention. It creates a sense of connection and shared experience. Experiencing together, feeling together and reacting together to what you are experiencing strengthens your emotional bond. This is also known as emotional synchrony.

What you will experience is that there is much more room for spontaneous interaction and discussion while watching. You are more involved with each other, and this makes for a richer experience.

Watching TV together often has ritual elements as well. Watching something with your children before or after dinner creates social cohesion, whereas content consumption on smartphones leads to a sense of isolation.

On top of that, smartphones often provide many other distractions as well, which causes attention to be divided. When watching TV together, there is often more focus on a single activity, which makes the experience more intense and cohesive.

And it may sound crazy, but that discussion of what to watch – despite the compromise – adds to the sense of joint decision-making and cooperation.

No, smartphones are not only bad

Of course, I see that the smartphone also brings wonderful things. Maintaining relationships remotely. The fun that kids experience playing games together on their own screens in the living room. People going outside together to catch Pokémons.

However, when I take stock, I see that the negative effects weigh much heavier.

The future impact of AR and VR on social relationships

Why am I writing all this? And what does this have to do with the AR environments that Apple and Facebook are building? I think that these VR and AR glasses are going to be many times worse than the smartphone and will further reinforce the negative effects of individualization. The Apple Vision Pro currently invites less contact with others because there are hardly any apps for this device that you can experience together. In the shared experiences that exist, at least a large part of the human element disappears. 

Source: Video MKBHD, 33.40 min.

Facebook’s Meta Quest 3 does have the possibility of the collaborative experience, with games where you can play paintball against each other, for example. You are a virtual character in the virtual world rather than being together in the real world.

And whereas the “projected eyes” on Apple’s glasses makes you feel like the user is still physically present, they are no longer in the same space mentally.

Source: Apple

Now, you could say that this will become better as the technology develops. Meta and Apple eventually want to move toward ordinary glasses or lenses that contain this technology. This will allow you to be present in both a real and virtual world at the same time. It will then also become easier to share that virtual world, or pieces of it, with others.

But if a smartphone – which partially takes you to another world – has already proven to have so many negative effects on relationships, what happens when you start living permanently in your own world?

What this can do to our sense of being and sense of togetherness, I find frightening.

Because in just being together, I experience the most happiness. And the space for that seems to be getting smaller and smaller with the emergence of these new technologies.

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