Apple has botched 3D for decades. So good luck with the Vision Pro, Tim

It looks like a fine product, but it's the ecoystem that will determine success

Column As we wait for Apple’s Vision Pro to arrive after pre-orders opened in early January, complete with a promise of 'spatial computing' perfected, Cupertino’s spotty history in the third dimension offers a useful counterweight to the reality distortion field accompanying the device’s launch.

As Apple's first product across its almost 50-year history to be explicitly dependent on real-time 3D graphics, the Vision Pro may look as though it represents an entirely new direction for the fruit cart. In fact, it's the latest chapter in a history littered with indifference, aborted standards, and failed products.

It's not as though the Apple ][ could have been an outstanding platform for 3D software, but all the way back in 1979, the first release of Microsoft Flight Simulator showed that it could do the job with wireframes. Early Macintosh computers came with a demo of a 3D 'bouncing ball' – seemingly lifted directly from a similar demo for Commodore's competing Amiga, a computer with substantial real-time 3D capabilities. But with only 2D support in its Toolbox API, creating those graphics on a Mac required deep assembly language programming skills.

Despite that testing requirement, two early Macintosh applications heralded the fusion of the graphical user interface and 3D interactivity. Virtus Walkthrough – prototyped by legendary programmer David Smith as a previsualization tool for James Cameron's The Abyss – generated detailed architectural walkthroughs of massive scenes. On a pokey Macintosh IIci, Virtus Walkthrough might only generate five frames a second – too slow for immersion, but perfectly acceptable for an architectural walkthrough running not on a half-million-dollar Silicon Graphics workstation but on a $1500 personal computer.

The other early title, Spectre, generated a Battlezone-like tank game, all wireframes and jagged landscapes. Unlike Battlezone, Spectre had been built around Apple's plug-and-play AppleTalk. Years before Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, or LAN parties, I challenged the other engineers at Shiva Corporation (we brought you WFH with our dial-into-an-AppleTalk network from your home modem) to Friday afternoon battles royale, artillery chasing our packets around the network.

Fast, fun and easy to play, Spectre could have been a watershed moment in computer games – but here we begin to encounter Apple's complete indifference to all things 3D. Desktop publishing had put Macintosh on the map; Photoshop turned the Macintosh into the must-have computer for every illustrator and designer. 2D brought Apple success, but blinded it to the 3D possibilities already emerging within its developer community.

On the lookout for ways to drive PCs into the home, Microsoft went all in on 3D, purchasing UK startup Rendermorphics in 1994, turning its RealityLab real-time 3D rendering software into the core of Direct3D. We all know the rest of that story: Windows became the premier desktop platform for gaming, a business that soon extended into console gaming, a game studio (after last year's acquisition of Activision Blizzard, now the largest game studio in the world), virtual reality, and – mon dieu! – the first successful spatial computing device, the HoloLens.

Across those thirty years Apple did try a few things, such as QuickTime VR, allowing you to 'knit' a sequence of photographs into a cohesive image that could be walked around or through – still basically 2D. Multiple attempts to get VRML running on MacOS were met with indifference – a big drawback for designers who wanted to work in VRML, most of whom were Mac-based. Even the underpinnings of OS X – which inherited Display PostScript from NextStep – lacked any serious 3D support. Apple did offer half-hearted support for OpenGL, finally withdrawing support when it became clear that its obvious indifference to real-time 3D had failed to attract developers to the platform. Apple had no interest in 3D, so developers and modelers had no interest in Apple, creating a vicious cycle of neglect.

The first signs of change came with Apple's introduction of Metal. Now a decade old, Metal has become the foundation for a new generation of macOS, iOS and iPadOS apps. It works well, but even here Apple's long-term indifference to 3D has come back to bite it.

Although iOS sees plenty of use among casual gamers, the sorts of premium titles Apple would like on its hardware tend to be very 'close to the metal' – talking directly to GPUs and the Windows DirectX API. Converting a title to Metal means a serious investment – and as Apple doesn't have a huge gaming community, it's difficult for any but the biggest titles to recover that investment, creating another vicious cycle.

Built atop Metal, the Vision Pro promises revolutionary levels of immersion in a pass-through-via-camera augmented reality – that much Apple can do on its own. But to make the product a success, Apple will need a legion of developers to create this generation's equivalent of QuarkXPress and Photoshop – titles that make the hardware an absolute must-have.

For that to happen, there needs to be a rich ecosystem of tools and talent – and this is where Apple must be sweating bullets.

Apple's tools launch partner, Unity, is busily imploding, having just laid off 25 percent of its work force. If Unity can't keep pace with developer needs, the market will move on. How many engineers will master the arcana of Metal so that their Vision Pro apps sing? Can Apple keep them interested in its burgeoning platform while – in the rest of the world – AI seems to be transforming every area of technology? Or will Apple simply lose interest and let the Vision Pro wither?

If history is any guide, Apple simply has neither the experience nor the determination to anything with 3D. The firm has great engineers and might have a great product – both are necessary but insufficient to push the rest of us into an era of spatial computing. That requires an energized, creative community. Unless we see that roaring to life over the next year, the Vision Pro could well take its place in the graveyard among Apple's other missed 3D opportunities. ®

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