The problem with standalone VR and "spatial computing"

The Apple Vision Pro and Meta's Quest headsets are too locked down to be the future of computing.

The problem with standalone VR and "spatial computing"
Credit: Apple
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Virtual reality headsets that don't need a computer attached, or "standalone VR" headsets, have taken off over the past few years. Meta (formerly Facebook) has sold a lot of Quest headsets, and Apple just released the Vision Pro to much fanfare. However, the age of "spatial computing" still needs to catch up to regular computing.

Apple, perhaps more than anyone else to date, is pushing the idea that virtual reality and augmented reality headsets can be alternatives to traditional computers for productivity. Apple even created a new term for the idea, "spatial computing," and asked developers to not say AR, VR, XR, and other existing terms. Much of the advertising for the Vision Pro shows it handling standard computer workloads, like editing presentations, talking in calls, responding to emails and messages, and so on.

Meta has tried marketing its Quest headsets as productivity devices as well, but the lower screen resolutions and more basic passthrough capabilities made that a harder sell. You can do VR meetings or type up Word documents, and not much beyond that. The Quest headsets are still primarily gaming devices, but I expect the Vision Pro will act as a template for Meta and other companies to draw inspiration from.

I haven't bought a Vision Pro, because it costs about the same as three months of my rent, but I do own a Meta Quest 2. It's an impressive device (that I want to write more about eventually), and its more basic versions of hand gestures and passthrough panels are enough for me to see that there's something here. Walking around my home while dragging a YouTube video along with me, and then expanding it to a larger panel to watch while I wash dishes, is pretty cool. There's absolutely a future where these silly-looking headsets could replace a laptop or a tablet for some people, while giving you more screen space than either of those devices.

There's one big problem, though: the Vision Pro and Meta's Quest headsets are incredibly locked down. They are more restrictive in the software they can run and less interoperable with other hardware than almost any other modern productivity device. I understand we're still in the early days for these devices—the first Quest headset was released in 2019 and the Vision Pro is brand new—but Meta and Apple have been historically reluctant to open up their other platforms.

Let's start with the Vision Pro. You can't install apps from outside the App Store, so emulators, third-party browsers with custom rendering engines, and other apps not allowed in the App Store are off-limits. You can't write your own software on the Vision Pro. You can't unlock the bootloader to modify the operating system or install a different one. Those limitations also apply to iPhones and iPads (VisionOS is a souped-up iPadOS), but with the added problem that there's no USB port. You can't plug in flash drives, wired keyboards, headphones, or video output cables. If Apple's other non-Mac platforms are any indication, some of those limitations will eventually be fixed, but others would probably require government intervention.

Meta's Quest headsets are slightly more of an open platform. There is a USB port, which you can use to transfer files to the Quest from a PC (e.g. copying movies), charging the headset, or connecting accessories like controllers and keyboards. There's a headphone jack, and you can still use Bluetooth if you want. The Meta Store has similar rules as the Apple App Store, but you can sideload third-party applications and app stores if you register a (free) developer account. The process for registering a developer account is broken for me, though, and I've waited over a month so far for Meta to provide a fix. You also can't unlock the bootloader and modify the system software, except on the now-unsupported Quest Go, and likely only because John Carmack pushed the issue for years before leaving Meta in 2022.

It doesn't have to be this way. Apple could build the Vision Pro as something closer to a Mac. The Meta Quest operating system is based on Android, which already has robust support for sideloading applications and unlocking the bootloader while maintaining a high level of security. The current wave of standalone headsets are more restricted than the typical smartphone, which in turn are more restricted than a typical PC.

Meta's Quest headsets are more like video game consoles than productivity tools, which makes some sense when gaming is the primary use case and work is an afterthought. The Vision Pro is a more general-purpose device, with much better apps and productivity features than the Quest, but it's even more locked down. I can't really use my iPad for work without serious compromises, and the $3,500 Vision Pro is somehow even further away from that.

I'm hopeful that the standalone VR/AR headset currently in development by Samsung and Google might provide a more open computing and gaming experience than the current batch of hardware. You can still sideload applications on any Android phone or tablet, and Google's Pixel phones have unlockable bootloaders. However, Google and Samsung might decide to not carry that forward to a new VR/AR platform, because no one else is doing it.

There's a lot to be excited about with these new platforms, but when I look at them right now, it's difficult to not think about how much functionality was cut out along the way. I really, really hope that changes.