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Are we living in 'Black Mirror?' Apple Vision Pros may make it feel that way

A person tries out an Apple Vision Pro headset at an Apple store in New York City on Feb. 2.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
A person tries out an Apple Vision Pro headset at an Apple store in New York City on Feb. 2.

Last week, Apple publicly launched a wearable mixed-reality headset it describes as a "spatial computer that seamlessly blends digital content with the physical world."

Videos and images have already cropped up online of Apple Vision Pro consumers that are drawing comparisons to the dystopian science fiction series Black Mirror.

Users can be seen frantically gesturing with their fingers while wearing the $3,500 headset out and about — at coffee shops, gyms and even while driving a Tesla.

Even if staged, such videos have forced the Department of Transportation to weigh in.

"Reminder—ALL advanced driver assistance systems available today require the human driver to be in control and fully engaged in the driving task at all times," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a social media post on Monday that features a video of someone seeming to use the Vision Pro while driving a Tesla Cybertruck with their hands off the wheel.

The Tesla website says that its assisted driver features — Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability — are "intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment."

An Apple user guide on the Vision Pro warns people not to use it while operating "a moving vehicle, bicycle, heavy machinery, or in any other situations requiring attention to safety," and shares tips on preparing one's space before using the device.

But despite warnings like these, the history of drivers wearing VR/AR headsets is not new.

Not a new reality

Virtual reality headset companies have actually actively been working with car companies to ensure that headsets work in cars for years.

In 2021, Meta announced it was teaming up with the research team at BMW to look at how to integrate augmented and virtual reality into smart cars "to enhance the passenger experience."

But enhancing the passenger experience could cause distractions.

"Because the companies have figured out how to track a person's body movement independently of the car's motion, passengers and drivers will be able to wear VR headsets to simultaneously see the road and digital content or be totally immersed in a virtual world," said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in aTechCrunch article he authored.

Distraction issue aside, Bailenson says the technology also poses some dangers because the headsets don't perfectly reproduce human vision, details of which are in a new Stanford study.

"When you're using a headset, objects are farther than they appear. They appear close, but they're actually far," he said in an interview with NPR. "Now, when you fast forward this to something like driving a car, what you're seeing is that when you're forced to make a turn or to adjust for a car who swerved into your lane, the distances that you see are not going to be accurate."

The Apple Vision Pro also works by blocking out all light, thus the user has to completely rely on headset cameras and sensors to see the external world.

"I mean, you're turning drivers into fighter pilots," Bailenson said. "Fighter pilots don't always see a windshield that shows light from the real world. They use computer readouts of the scene around them in many instances, except they're receiving many, many, many hours of training on how to do that."

Bailenson said companies can easily make it so headsets don't work in cars, but they may be reluctant to do so because they want to tap into the future driverless car market. Any safeguards that currently exist are not enough, he said.

Distracted-driving laws vary

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 3,500 people were killed and over 360,000 people were injured in distracted driving crashes in 2021.

Driving laws vary by state, so whether the behavior shown in the Vision Pro driving videos is illegal would depend on local laws.

"Most states have laws in place regarding use of electronic devices while driving, but laws differ on definitions of electronic device and what is specifically allowed," said Joe Young, director of media relations at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in an email to NPR.

Young adds that some states do have broader definitions of distraction that would likely cover this behavior. For example, Connecticut, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin define distracted driving as basically anything that diverts the driver's attention from driving the vehicle.

"Many states have laws against screens in the line of sight of the driver, but many specify the type of content that can't be displayed (some refer to television broadcasts specifically). In short, it's complicated and a bit of a gray area," Young said.

He said automakers need to do more to ensure that drivers can't misuse technology like this.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diba Mohtasham