Will 2024 be the year of Apple’s Vision Pro or Bluetooth’s Auracast?

It’s almost wo weeks since Apple shipped its first tranche of Vision Pros to around 100,000 lucky boys and girls (although I suspect the majority were lucky boys).  According to the New York Times, the average cost of a Vision Pro is close to $4,600 by the time you’ve fitted it out with the recommended accessories.  If you’re outside the US, there’s a significant premium on top of that.  So, the first tranche of sales of around 200,000 units will have netted Apple in excess of $1 billion.   That’s a staggering achievement, as is folding all of the tech into the product.  Bringing it to market is an amazing step.  The question is whether it’s going to impinge on very many people? 

The market response has been surprisingly muted.  We’ve had the enthusiastic unboxing videos, although why showing off your ability to open a box is thought to be impressive has long eluded me.  The teardown group at iFixit have immediately taken theirs to pieces.  A few more have made viral videos of how to do stupid things with their Vision Pro, like wearing it whilst driving their Teslas.  A number of users have posted considered reviews, of which I’d recommend Ben Thompson’s at Stratechery.  Several thousand more have already listed theirs on eBay in the hope of a quick profit.

What’s been missing is an outpouring of praise of the kind we’d normally expect for such a ground-breaking event.  Even Apple have diverted the conversation away by dropping hints that there’s a new folding iPhone coming soon.  That can be construed as a spoiler for the upcoming Mobile World Congress, where most of the industry expect every man and their soldering iron in the Middle Kingdom to be displaying a folding Android phone. 

There’s probably another couple of reasons for the unexpected silence, the first of which is that 2024 may be the year when consumers start to make it clear that they are getting fed up with the constant treadmill of technology.  The excitement of ever more features, pixels and acronyms is waning.  Most new products look more and more like their predecessors.  The only thing that will differ in 2024 is that they will all apparently have AI, whatever that may mean. 

The second, and perhaps the more important reason is that in one respect, the Vision Pro is taking a step backwards, in that it’s a device on which to consume content, not create it.  As with any new platform, it doesn’t have a lot of content at the moment, which is probably why Apple is so keen to promote it as a productivity platform, not just another virtual reality device.  But as Ben Thompson points out, it is still a one screen device, like an iPhone or iPad.  Great for watching TV in isolation, but not a very sociable device. 

The gradual move to isolating ourselves from the real world around us is an interesting topic to explore.  We’ve become so used to the status quo of listening to music on portable devices that it’s easy to forget that it never used to be an isolated, personal experience.  Since Sony gave us the Walkman, the industry has carefully guided us into music as a solitary experience.  That move was embraced by the recording industry, who saw the potential of selling the same music multiple times to individual family members.  Apple reinforced it with the introduction of the iPod and iTunes.  As mobile data rates increased to support streaming, services like Pandora and Spotify grew on the model of hiring us music, rather than letting us own it. 

Having been a leader in audio isolation, Apple then took the next step in isolation, with the iPad.  Watching TV now became personal – an increasingly isolated experience, as time-shifted streaming supplanted broadcast, and families no longer shared their viewing.  Watching TV on the Vision Pro is almost the final step, where we are no longer aware of those around us.  Which is where Auracast comes in.

You may not have heard of Auracast yet.  It’s the flagship feature of the new Bluetooth Low Energy Audio specifications, with products which support it beginning to appear on the market. The first of these appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, catching the attention of press and analysts, who raved about its potential.  Unlike every wireless consumer audio standard that we’ve had before, it’s specifically designed for sharing audio, whether that’s voice or music.  In terms of its impact, it’s probably the biggest change that we’ve seen in audio reproduction since the introduction of stereo back in the late 1960s.

Auracast has an interesting history.  It started off in the hearing aid industry, which wanted to find a lower power way of connecting hearing aids to TVs and phones.  Unlike earbuds, hearing aids are worn and used all day.  You don’t get the opportunity to take them out and recharge them, so battery life is a major challenge.  To solve this, the hearing aid manufacturers worked with the Bluetooth SIG to develop a completely new way to transmit audio, which would reduce power, improve audio quality, provide much lower latencies for live transmission and also support broadcast, where multiple users could “tune in” to the same audio stream.   Auracast was designed to extend the experience that hearing aid users have had for many decades, which lets them pick up audio from inductive audio loops, which comprise the telecoil system.  These are typically found in theatres, cinemas, public venues and public transport.  By touching a button on their hearing aids, users can listen to the local audio stream.  However, telecoil has its limitations, as you might expect from a seventy year old technology.  The major one is that as you need to be inside a physical wired loop to pick it up, there is only ever one audio stream available.

Bluetooth doesn’t have the physical limitations of an inductive loop.  Instead of running wire around a building or a vehicle, all it needs is a small transmitter, which can cover a surprisingly large area.  It is able to transmit multiple different audio streams at the same time.  That immediately upgrades the hearing aid experience from mono to stereo, but it doesn’t stop there.  You can transmit streams in different languages, so that viewers can watch a film in their preferred language.  Or have a TV simultaneously transmit a stereo signal to a soundbar and an audio enhanced signal for someone else with hearing loss.  (Amazon Prime is already including these “dialogue boost” streams with most of their new series.)

As these features were explained to them, more and more consumer audio companies saw the benefits and joined in the standardisation work.  It quickly became apparent that the ability to transmit audio to multiple listeners could be taken one step further, so that everyone could share audio from their tablets and smartphones. 

For twenty years, Bluetooth had been complicit in providing technology for the isolationist approach to audio.  Particularly with the introduction of wireless headsets, followed shortly after by wireless  earbuds, users were encouraged to listen by themselves, eschewing conversation for their own personal sound bubble.  If they ever felt like sharing, they’d share a playlist, so that their friends could withdraw back into their own private bubbles.

All of a sudden that has changed.  In coffee shops and at home, you can pop in your earbuds or hearing aids and listen with friends.  Once you have a music sharing app on your phone or smartwatch, it can display a QR code to identify your personal Auracast transmissions, and your friends just need to scan it with their phone to listen to your music stream. 

If you feel the urge to run a silent disco, all your friends need to do is scan a QR Code on your phone.  If you’re running a yoga or fitness class, your head microphone will transmit directly to everyone’s earbuds.  If you want to find out when the next bus is due, you listen to the transport stream from the local bus stop, or let the train gently whisper in your ear as a subtlest of augmented realities.

The aim of Auracast is simplicity and connecting people.  It works with phones, TVs and any other audio source, playing the output on any combination of hearing aids, earbuds and speakers.  As the ecosystem grows, it will support multiple different audio streams from multiple overlapping sources, with the ability to easily select whichever one you want from a phone app or by scanning a QR Code.  It will take time for manufacturers to understand these new flexibilities, as they need to change their mindset of the last half century, which was to drive everyone into their own, insulated sound bubble.  But as users start to experience the new possibilities, they are likely to clamour for more Auracast support. 

Which brings us back to the two divergent tracks – Apple’s quest to isolate users and Bluetooth’s to bring them together.  We are beginning to understand the consequences of isolation.  Anyone with hearing loss knows it only too well.  As your hearing loss increases, your level of social interaction decreases.  The cruel outcome of that is that your risk of dementia increases six-fold.  Helping people to converse through better hearing is the best means of prevention.  We also know that a lack of talking to our children leads to other issues, and I would recommend Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” and “Reclaiming Conversation” for anyone wanting to explore them.  Many will feel that Vision Pro takes us further down that antisocial cul de sac.  In contrast, Auracast offers a return to social audio, where we can share our personal spaces and choices. 

Both harness technology to push a vision of how we should interact with other.  One is arrogantly high tech – wearing it makes an ostentatious statement that you have too much disposable income and want to be alone.  Auracast shows your desire to share and respond.  It will be fascinating to chart their relative progress as they attempt to grow their market share.

 If you’re in the UK on 7th March you can learn more about Auracast at an afternoon seminar in Cambridge, hosted by Cambridge Wireless.  Register for free at https://www.cambridgewireless.co.uk/events/auracast/, using the delegate code CDGUEST070324, which will apply a 100% discount.