• Apple
  • Tesla
  • Automated Vehicles
  • Machine Learning

Engineers Still Need to Consider How Products Will Be Misused

Sam Abuelsamid
Feb 22, 2024

Complex computer circuitry is montaged with a futuristic person's eye in an image about artificial intelligence issues

Over the years I’ve written on numerous occasions about the need for innovation to be tempered by thoughtfulness about how products can and will be misused or repurposed. Tesla and its approach to rolling out beta versions of safety-critical software like Autopilot and Full Self-Driving have frequently been the subject of my ire. This time, it’s Apple’s new mixed reality headset, the Vision Pro.

In the very early days of my engineering career, in the early 1990s, my manager at the time demonstrated to me some of the many seemingly unexpected ways that drivers could utilize vehicles with antilock brakes that could upset the performance of the system. Finding new use cases for products or technology is not an inherently bad thing and can lead to interesting innovations.

Take the Apple Watch, for example. When Apple first announced its smartwatch in 2014, the consumer electronics company highlighted it as a fashion item, with use cases like sending a heartbeat or little finger-drawn sketches to a loved one, or checking the status of an automatic garage door. Once people actually started to wear the watch, most found these and many other initial features trivial and useless, but they really latched on to using it for fitness and health tracking.

In early February 2024, Apple began delivering the Vision Pro headset. While the company focuses on this being a face-worn computer for productivity applications, the Vision Pro is at heart a virtual reality headset. As such, it features a visual pass-through system that uses exterior cameras to display the real environment to the user as an alternative to virtual environments. However, at 3.25 megapixels, the resolution of those cameras is comparatively low, and the headset has a limited field of view. A user can see a full 360-degree environment by turning their head, but only about a 100-degree field is visible at any one time, whereas most people have peripheral vision that approaches 180 degrees.

For a headset that’s meant to be used to do work on virtual displays floating in front of the user or to watch movies in an immersive environment, all while mostly stationary, this isn’t much of an issue and is comparable to other similar devices. Apple even includes a travel mode for use on airplanes to help keep visual elements stable to avoid motion sickness. Where it becomes a real issue is if the user decides to use the headset behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.

Seemingly within hours of its release, reports began popping up of Vision Pro users wearing the headset when they should be watching the road in a moving vehicle. In most cases, these incidents were in Tesla vehicles using the Autopilot or Full Self-Driving beta software, but one friend told me of seeing someone in the parking lot of a local mall (where there is an Apple Store) wearing a headset while driving a Jeep Wrangler, which has no automated driving capability.

Much of the Vision Pro functionality may not actually work in a moving vehicle, and these people were probably hoping to be caught on camera and immortalized on social media. However, the reduced visual acuity of the cameras and the limited field of view mean drivers would have less situational awareness while wearing a headset and would pose a risk to themselves and other road users and pedestrians.

As a company with more financial and technical resources than just about any other on the planet, Apple should have considered the potential for this kind of misuse in designing their very sophisticated product. Given the affluent and technically savvy customers likely to pay $3,500 for the Vision Pro, it was an easy scenario to anticipate. Apple, Meta, or any other company developing headsets with this sort of visual pass-through capability should also be building in some machine vision logic that would recognize when the wearer is behind the wheel of a vehicle and automatically disable the device if motion is detected. While wearing these types of headsets when driving is uncommon behavior at this point, it probably won’t stay that way for long.