Apple helped nail our noses to the black mirror (read: our smartphone screens). There’s no way around it.
More than anyone else, the company made smartphone screens fun to look at, and enabled app developers to find a million ways to fix our attention there. And that made Apple the most valuable tech company in the world. Smartphones may have made us more productive, connected, and entertained, but they’ve also left us more distracted and isolated from each other as we spend more time alone with our little metal-and-glass friends.
Apple is very aware of this—and, I sense, not very comfortable with it. Its executives have talked a lot in recent years about creating technology that helps relieve us of the fearsome demands of the digital world and lets us stay engaged in real life.
Jony Ive said that sort of thinking was a driving principle behind the creation of the Apple Watch. Notifications on our phones would be easily glanceable–and ignorable–on our wrist, Ive and other Apple execs told us. We could just look down, swipe unimportant notifications aside, and continue on doing whatever we were doing. A groovy concept to be sure, and it does work to an extent. But I still spend a lot of time staring at my iPhone.
The problem, in a way, is ergonomic. The screens of the phone and the watch are just too far away from our eyes, causing us to have to curve our bodies and our eyes toward their screens–and away from other people and the world around us.
Augmented-reality headsets or glasses put digital content very near our eyes. In fact they can overlay content on real-world things we’re looking at, and, perhaps provide information about those things. What good AR content does not do is obscure or distract from objects of interest in the real world. AR glasses, then, could be Apple’s way out of offering us personal devices that distract and isolate us.
“A Help For Humanity”
Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken numerous times about how excited he is about augmented reality. He’s never said Apple is actually working on augmented-reality glasses or a headset, but a number of reports have said so–the most recent from Bloomberg‘s Mark Gurman. Here’s Cook talking to analysts after Apple’s most recent quarterly earnings report: “[Augmented reality] amplifies human performance instead of isolating humans. It’s a help for humanity, not an isolation kind of thing for humanity.”
Cook would not have said that about an experience where the user is staring into the screen of a phone. Apple has already set the stage for an AR ecosystem by launching the ARKit development platform, which lets developers create AR apps that overlay digital content over the real world as seen through the iPhone’s camera lens. Cook says the App Store now contains more than 1,000 AR apps. As I’ve written before, all of the ARKit apps we’ve seen to date would work far better on AR glasses.
But it seems clear that an Apple AR headset or glasses is still at least two years away. The memory and display components needed to create a sleek wearable device with respectable battery life just aren’t available yet.
“I can tell you the technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way,” Cook recently told the Independent. “The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face–there’s huge challenges with that. The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it’s not there yet.”
Meanwhile, online data firm ComScore says we’re spending 2 hours and 51 minutes staring at our black mirrors every day, and eMarketer says we spend 4 hours and 5 minutes. The term cell-phone zombie has entered the lexicon. Cities in China and Europe have established “cell-phone lanes” to keep such zombies from walking into other pedestrians.
It’s Still A Problem
The issue of phone abuse doesn’t get the kind of attention it did circa 2011-2013. I had a hard time finding any media coverage of it in 2017, beyond a Telegraph story citing a report from the UK Physiological Society saying that people fear losing their wireless phone almost as much as they fear terror attacks.
Part of the reason for that may be that time spent on smartphones has slowed somewhat in the last couple of years. I’d also argue that it’s because we’ve given in to the smartphone.
There are lots of reasons for this, but two of the biggest are utility and dopamine.
Utility: Smartphones has become the central organizing force in our lives. We use them to do business, run families, communicate, handle money, document the present (with photos), and plan for the future.
Dopamine: Smartphones are far more than mere digital organizers. We like those little shots of dopamine they give us, from friends’ text messages to the likes and follows we get on Twitter and Facebook.
“If technology is a drug–and it does feel like a drug–then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area—between delight and discomfort—is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set,” Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker told The Guardian in 2012. Brooker explained that the title of the series refers to “the cold, shiny screen” of smartphones and TVs.
That dopamine hit (as former Facebook CEO Sean Parker calls it) is great for mobile app makers and the venture capitalists who fund them, but like an abusable drug, it can become a time-wasting, isolating, and ultimately empty experience for the user.
Apple sells the most popular smartphones in the world, and long ago established the app as the central paradigm for content consumption and creation on a mobile device. The company profits every time a consumer buys an app in the App Store, or buys something within an app.
“Now you couldn’t imagine your life without apps,” Cook told the Independent. “AR is like that. It will be that dramatic.” Apple may think of AR glasses as the next delivery platform for apps. And the apps might adapt to the delivery platform by integrating their content with objects in the real world.
AR headsets won’t likely cure all the problems stemming from digital life’s encroachment on real life. Consumers must be thoughtful about defining the best and healthiest mix of digital and analog in daily life, and they must vote with their dollars to communicate those choices to big tech companies. But AR will at least put our heads in a better position–a heads-up position–to use digital content to augment rather than replace reality.