Innovation doesn't mean inclusion. Why the details of the Apple Vision Pro matter.

You have probably seen a viral social video by now of an Apple Vision Pro user controlling the new virtual reality headset with his fingertips on the New York City subway. He swipes and clicks the air, seemingly in another world.

The internet has been filled with videos like these of users donning the lenses in the real world (even courtside at NBA games), but it takes just a cursory search of social media posts to notice that early adopters appear to be overwhelmingly male and predominately white. This raises the question of who the $3,499 virtual reality headset is designed for, and how the tech fits into the everyday lives of women, people of color and other marginalized groups, from public safety concerns to wearability.

While the subway Vision Pro user isn't bothering anyone directly and likely wouldn't be considered to be manspreading, the way the lenses impact public spaces will be worthy of examination, said Kishonna Gray, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who researches the intersection of women, race and tech design.

Wearable tech has a long history with racialized and gendered impacts. Growing research shows artificial intelligence technologies are rife with bias and discrimination, mirroring and amplifying real-world inequalities in content generation (like associating negative emotions with non-white men). Facial recognition systems struggle to see Black people, raising concerns about equal opportunity in new tech that's increasingly powerful in our lives, from getting a job to traveling abroad.

And when these systems do see non-white folks, they're often recognized in the context of surveillance and policing programs.

The issue is that masculinity is the "standard operating system" in tech design, Gray said. "They have a very narrow user in mind for this technology at this time."

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Wearable tech has a history of race, gender problems

Gray likened this technological moment to the launch of Pokémon Go, the wildly popular augmented reality game in which users can find Pokémon anywhere in their environment. Users who run around public spaces to "catch" Pokémon treaded new boundaries about socially acceptable uses of tech and what this usage means for marginalized groups.

The Black children Gray works with in her Kentucky community have to weigh different concerns when playing Pokémon Go than white kids, she said, like how they will be received by others when running around, whether that attention could incite violence and what they should do in response.

Influencer iJustine wears her Vision Pro at the launch of the Apple Vision Pro at Apple The Grove in Los Angeles, California, on February 2, 2024.
Influencer iJustine wears her Vision Pro at the launch of the Apple Vision Pro at Apple The Grove in Los Angeles, California, on February 2, 2024.

Vision Pro review videos of tech fans in their carefully designed home studios or walking around major U.S. cities are also a reminder how few Americans can see this kind of tech in their daily lives, said the associate professor.

"I'm from Kentucky. If I were to travel to the eastern part of the state, there's no infrastructure that would allow me to even engage (with the Vision Pro) because I can barely use my phone in some places," Gray said, adding that boosting basic access to technology and its responsible usage should come before new innovations are spread widely.

The University of Kentucky scholar and other experts say that while the Vision Pro is clearly designed with inclusion in mind, time will tell whether the tech is truly accessible to all.

Apple Watch not made for skin like mine. We deserve tech that works for everyone.

Who gets to use the Vision Pro in public?

So what kind of person feels safe covering their eyes and waving their arms in the air before an audience of strangers?

In America, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Persistent racism has affected Asian American and Pacific Islanders in U.S. cities. Last year reported the highest number of police killings, with Black Americans most likely to be victims.

Apple calls the Vision Pro an "infinite canvas," but this claim seems to ignore that public spaces, let alone virtual domains, are not experienced the same way across barriers of race and gender, Gray said.

"Could you imagine a group of Black boys doing that and the threat that might generate? Or a group of women doing that, and the attention that would bring?" Gray said. "Most of the people we are seeing doing unveiling and reaction videos, they're just looking at how cool this technology is. That's beautiful, but it's rooted in so much privilege."

An Apple employee organizes the line for the doors to open at the launch of the Apple Vision Pro at Apple The Grove in Los Angeles, California, on February 2, 2024.
An Apple employee organizes the line for the doors to open at the launch of the Apple Vision Pro at Apple The Grove in Los Angeles, California, on February 2, 2024.

On the flip side, Jasmine Uniza, founder of Impact Reality XR, a virtual reality consultancy, said tech could lead users to feel more safe because they look up when wearing the tech to gauge their surroundings, rather than down at a smartphone.

Apple says Vision Pro can "continuously listen for certain sounds" such as a doorbell and notify the user, but warns not to "rely" on Vision Pro to hear sounds that could alert to a dangerous situation.

Uniza said she'd love to use the headset beyond her home, but the risk is too high.

"Physically, I'm 5 feet. If someone tried to take it from me there's no way I would be able to stop them," said Uniza, who spent $4,500 on her headset.

Hair, makeup and head straps

Both Uniza and Gray echoed concerns about Vision Pro's wearability. Uniza said a lot about strap type, and she often purchases third-party head straps that better balance virtual reality hardware on her head. She said Vision Pro's soft cloth strap seems like a promising innovation for comfortability lying down and shaping to diverse hair types, but she will probably still purchase a "bulkier" alternative strap that sits on top of her head "like a hat" to improve comfort when wearing the headset for longer stretches of time.

Apple recommends sliding the strap over the head for best fit, but adjustments aren't easy for people with limited fine motor skills, said Steven Aquino, a California-based tech writer who focuses on accessibility.

Apple offers a variety of accessibility features for vision, sound and physical controls, including hearing-aid compatibility. For Aquino, whose right eye is not set straight, he can choose to operate the headset with the input of his left eye only.

Nonetheless, he also has a stutter and is concerned he'll need to rely on other control options if the headset can't understand his voice commands.

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Though Aquino said the ability to see extra large screens will help make entertainment and FaceTime more accommodating, "the challenge will be not what this changes about me, but the challenge is finding what the headset is for that helps me. I'm not sold on what that is yet."

Gray said she doesn't want to don a headset that weighs up to 23 ounces (compared with Meta's Oculus Quest 2, one of the most popular virtual reality headsets, at 17.7 ounces) and has concerns about users with diverse hairstyles that can't be easily flattened down under gear, such as dreads, braids or hair weaves.

Apple's marketing for the headset featured a Black woman with curls tied back into a high ponytail. The image capitalizes on "cool black aesthetics" and "commodified ghetto cool" to sell a product as "hip-hop," Gray said, but it leaves a lot about Black experiences with the tool unanswered (such as how darker pigmented makeup could discolor the white interior of the headset).

"Can Black girls who look like her actually use the product?" Gray said in reaction to the campaign. "So many of us are going to have to think, 'What do we do with our hair to put it on?' ... Let's get a group of Black girls here and actually put it on."

There are also concerns about body representation on Vision Pro. FaceTiming with the headset occurs using personas mimicking the user's body rather than an actual video an iPhone uses.

Uniza is used to using avatars in her work in virtual reality and enjoys spending time creating versions of herself on other systems that feel authentic. But with the Vision Pro, choices for customization are too limited for self expression, she said.

Jasmine Uniza's Apple Vision Pro persona (left) compared to a real image of her (right).
Jasmine Uniza's Apple Vision Pro persona (left) compared to a real image of her (right).

Her persona's chin is larger and rounder than her real face, and she doesn't like the faded, fuzzy 1980s-style image quality of the persona. While the representation of her body didn't feel accurate, she didn't get the impression Vision Pro was imposing beauty norms and standards on her body, she said.

"It wasn't successful yet, but I felt like it was intending to be a mirror rather than a commentary," Uniza said of the persona.

'Add women' doesn't mean inclusion

The Vision Pro is a "beautiful, innovative" product, Gray said, and she looks forward to implementing the technology in her classroom to teach college students about ethical use of its capabilities. But for now, she sees the launch following the pattern of previous hardware unveilings she has studied, in which Apple is likely waiting to see what hacks and moderations initial users generate before developing the headset for a broader public use case, she said.

But in the tech and gaming industries, these early adopters are historically white and male, said the University of Kentucky's assistant professor, meaning marginalized groups are often left out of creative evolution. If women and people of color were included from the onset, tech would probably look very different, she said. Instead, they're included later in the process producing an "add women and stir" effect.

"At the ideation stage, we have a very small subset of the population making decisions that will impact all of us," Gray said. "If you don't have women in that conversation and other groups, you're not going to think about what that full range of experiences could be."

Nicole Fallert
Nicole Fallert

Nicole Fallert is a Newsletter Writer for USA TODAY.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who can use Vision Pro in public? New tech raises race, gender issues