Contextual Computing with Vision Pro: My Writing Cabin

A wide screen image showing Apple's Notes app with all panes open, against a virtual Yosemite Valley background. This is viewed through a Vision Pro device.
Looking at Yosemite Valley while writing in Apple Notes

This entire post was composed on Apple Vision Pro with dictation and a Bluetooth Apple Keyboard attached…in virtual Yosemite Valley.

One of my interests in the visionOS platform is whether or not I can use it to get work done. Apple thinks so and has made that a big part of the marketing push for this device. However, it is a new platform with a fledgling App Store and many questions surrounding whether it is useful for productive work.

Moreover, the types of workflows that lend themselves to the platform are also in question. Don’t forget the Vision Pro operating system is based on the iPad, not the Mac. It’s easy to strap on this new device, thinking you can turn it into a Mac. (The fact that you can mirror a Mac display makes it even more tempting.) That’s the mistake I made with the iPad, and I spent years drilling empty wells, looking for productivity workflows that would allow me to duplicate Mac workflows. It was only after I accepted the iPad as an iPad that it became productive for me.

I’m not going to make that mistake with the Vision Pro. I’m going into this thing with open eyes and a sense of curiosity for where it can be used to get work done.

This is not a Macintosh. It is something else. And that is where the opportunity lies. While Mac workflows don’t work here in visionOS, are there things in visionOS that don’t work on a Mac? That is where we should be looking.

And for me, that starts with the idea of contextual computing. I have long felt that computers put too much interference between you and your work.

If you want to write an email, you need to open an email application, which will show you a bunch of new emails, but not a compose window where you can write that email. So many times, you’ll start with that task to write that important email but never actually find your way to the compose window. If you want to work on your task list, you often have to wade through screens and screens of existing tasks before you can get to the ones you need. Put simply, computers need to put you in the context of the work with as little interference as possible.

Sadly, most modern software doesn’t do that. Instead, it does the exact opposite. This is partly due to bad design and partly because tech companies have figured out ways to monetize your attention. They are intentionally trying to divert you from the work. That’s how they keep the lights on. One of the easiest ways to be more productive on any platform is to find quick ways to get yourself in the context of the work you seek to do with as little interference as possible.

This is where visionOS and Vision Pro come in. It’s a new platform tightly controlled by one of the only big tech companies interested in user privacy. This new visionOS is where you can work if you are smart about it.

I’m still experimenting and figuring out my workflows, but here’s an easy one I’ve been using in visionOS for several days: my context-based writing space.

It starts in Yosemite Valley. Using the visionOS “Environments” space, I have found myself in an immersive rendition of the Yosemite Valley in winter. There’s snow on the ground, but I’m sitting there right now comfortably with just my socks on … which is nice.

The main screen in front of me has Apple Notes, where I’m writing this article. To my left is a floating research pane with Safari in it. That’s it. A little research. A place to write. Yosemite Valley. I’ve written about 3,000 words here in the valley over the last few days, which is very comforting. I’ve got a focus mode on, so I don’t get interrupted, and I genuinely feel alone with my words. That’s important. For this to work, I need to be off the grid. This is my cabin in the woods, where I do my writing.

When I’m not writing, I don’t go to Yosemite to watch a visionOS movie, or check email, or play with some other aspect of visionOS. My brain is already figuring out that Yosemite Valley equals writing. My Mac is far away, back at my studio, along with the the cognitive load that comes with the work I do on my Mac. That’s all a distant memory here in Yosemite Valley. My brain is successfully duped.

As the context sticks, the work gets easier. This is a form of contextual computing that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve tried it with other headsets, but the poor-quality screens made it unbearable. I expect this writing context will get only easier over time. As the habit sticks and more writing apps and tools start showing up, I’ll consider bringing the better ones with me to future trips to the valley.

When I’m done writing, I leave this place, knowing Yosemite Valley will be there the next time I want to write.

This immersive context is not possible while sitting at a Mac. And for me, it is just the beginning of these explorations. I’m considering building a similar workflow in some other environment for journaling. And I’ve got more ideas after that.

This started simply as a proof-of-concept experiment, but now it’s set for me. I’ll return here the next time I need to do some serious writing. It’s already working: the valley appears, and my brain says, “Okay. Let’s get to it. Let’s start moving that cursor.”

This a digitally created distraction-free environment that is made possible by visionOS. And this is the productivity story for Vision Pro. I’m not looking to replace an existing platform but find new ways that are only possible in the new platform. The valley proves it’s possible. So now I need to see what else it can do. visionOS isn’t at a place where it can become my only operating system. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be an essential tool in helping me get my work done.

Hook Turns Three

Hook is the link-everything app for your Mac. It creates links to files, email, and other digital bits, letting you easily “hook” things together. It’s increasingly becoming part of my contextual computing workflow, and this week it turns three. You can get 30% off with the code: “HookTurns3”.

My initial concern about Hook being a flash-in-the-pan is now obviously unfounded. They have a solid business model and the principal developer is clearly committed to making Hook work for everyone. (Note: I agreed to accept an unpaid and uncompensated position on Hook’s board of advisors.)

Linking Your Thinking Conference

I am fully invested in the emerging idea of linked thinking and how it can help us use technology for our own good. When Nick Milo asked me to participate in his Linking Your Thinking Conference, it was a no-brainer. I’m doing a session this Wednesday morning at 9:00 PDT, all about how I link from Obsidian to other places. This is part of how I contextually compute. Registration is free, I hope to see you there.

Focus Mode and Contextual Computing

Focus Mode iPhone Screenshots.PNG

Watching WWDC Monday, one announcement that landed with me was the new Focus feature. (If you follow my podcasts, this shouldn’t be a surprise.) Regardless, I’ve spent the last few days playing with this new feature, and I like it. Focus is like Do Not Disturb, except it solves most of the limitations associated with Do Not Disturb.

First, Build a Wall

With Focus mode, I can set a specific kind of focus. One of mine is Podcasting. When you set up a Focus mode, your Apple devices put up walls to keep out distractions while you work on focused work. That may be the best part of the Focus feature: It starts with a wall. It’s then up to you to punch very specific (and small) holes in that wall. The fact that it begins with the concept that everything is blocked is why it works.

Make Exceptions for People

You can then add specific people that can breakthrough. Getting interrupted while trying to make an entertaining show is distracting. So in the case of my Podcasting Focus, the only people that can get through are my podcast partners and my wife.

Make Exceptions for Apps (or Don’t)

Next, you can poke holes for app notifications. In the case of podcasting, the only app I’m letting through is Zoom on my Mac. In my “Legal Work” Focus, it’s a different set of apps. This is the nice thing about switches and dials. Different areas of focus require different kinds of walls.

Consider Time-Sensitive Notifications

In addition to exceptions for people and apps, you can also make space for time-sensitive notifications to get through. Maybe this is something like a delivery notification or a notice that your Lyft driver is waiting. While I’ve got this option turned on for some of my Focus setups, it’s off for podcasting. Again, no interruptions are allowed when the mic is hot.

Let Folks Know

You can also auto-respond, letting people know you are in Focus mode and giving them a way to breakthrough if something is truly important. I use this feature in most modes.

Choose a Home Screen

If that’s not enough, you can also have your phone go to a specific home screen when you set the Focus mode. This includes pages you usually keep hidden. I will be setting up a hidden page of apps I use when I play music (metronome, tuner, sheet music app, and music app for play-along) and tie it to a reasonably liberal Focus mode. Then when I trigger the mode, I get the hidden music tools home screen.

Focus Automation

You can trigger Focus mode based on app usage, time of day, or, location. Alternatively, “Smart Activation” uses all of these variables for the device to turn it on for you. Also, the Shortcuts integration is bi-directional. I could just as easily run a Shortcut that has an action that triggers the Music Focus mode. It’s up to you.

The Walls Go Up Everywhere

Another great point about Focus mode is that it works across all your devices. If I set this Podcasting Focus Mode on my Mac, it also kicks in on my iPhone and iPad. For years, my pre-podcast ritual involved finding stray Apple devices to turn off before hitting the red button. This solves that.

Focus Mode on Mac.png

Room for Improvement

I am digging Focus mode but already see a few things I’d like added/changed. First, picking multiple contacts for exceptions is slow and painful. I’d prefer it also give me an option to select contact groups, like “family” or “clients”. I would also like the ability to duplicate focus modes as a starting point for new modes. Finally, I’d like to be able to customize the focus notification based on the specific Focus mode.

Focus Mode and Contextual Computing

Regardless, this new feature is aces. Moreover, it dovetails with my never-ending quest to further contextualize all of my time with technology. When I want to write a contract, I need my digital gizmos to set me up for that task and no other. When I want to make music, it should be the same. With a bit of effort, Focus mode will bring this power to all of us and across all of our Apple devices. I’m only two days into figuring out the best workflows for Focus mode, but I can already see how this will be a fixture of my work (and leisure) time going forward.

Mac Power Users 569: Contextual Computing

I’m walking Stephen through my concept of contextual computing, and why it’s a lot easier to get started with than it sounds on the latest episode of Mac Power Users. This one is special to me. contextual computing has been a think I’ve been working on for a year.

This episode of Mac Power Users is sponsored by:

  • 1Password: Have you ever forgotten a password? You don’t have to worry about that anymore.

  • SaneBox: Stop drowning in email!

  • The Intrazone by Microsoft SharePoint: Your bi-weekly conversation and interview podcast hosted by the SharePoint team.

  • Pingdom: Start monitoring your website performance and availability today, and get instant alerts when an outage occurs or a site transaction fails. Use offer code MPU to get 30% off. Offer expires on January 31, 2021, and can be used only once.

Linking and Contextual Computing

I think a lot of people are underutilizing links. Lately, I have been working with contextual computing and the idea that you can go from idea to action on your computer with the least amount of friction. For example, if you need to access your task list for a specific project and open your task manager, you will be immediately exposed to much more than that particular project’s task list. You will see your daily list, your flags, and a host of other unrelated data that can distract and divert you from the reason you went to your task manager to begin with. This is even worse with infinite bucket apps like email and your web browser.

It is far better to jump straight from thought (I want to see the shrink ray project) to execution (looking at the shrink ray project) without the intervening steps of navigating through an app. This eliminates the possibility of distraction. So the trick is to find ways not to open apps, but specific data sets within apps to avoid further distraction.

This is easiest to implement with websites. Every page on the internet has a URL address that takes you to that specific place without any intermediate stops when fed to your browser of choice. If your work involves going to websites, you can save those URLs to your devices and trigger them from just about anywhere. I keep URLs to tasks, calendar entries, notes entries, and other places where I often find myself working and want to go quickly to a particular spot on the internet. When you click that embedded link, you go straight to your destination. No distractions.

It is easy to forget these URL links work for web services. I have been trying out for personal email, and one of the things I like about the service is that every email has an easy-to-grab web address. Later, I can get back to that specific message with a URL link.

The bit you may not be aware of is just how many applications have their own built-in URL linking schemes. Most modern applications include a deep link or URL link mechanism to get you to a specific location of the application. I use these app-based URL links daily on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone in Drafts, Obsidian, Craft, OmniFocus, and DEVONthink. DEVONthink takes it a step further and creates unique URL links for any file you store within DEVONthink (iCloud and the Finder have no such feature), so you can additionally link to specific documents inside your DEVONthink library.

As I collect the web and app-based links, I keep them together concerning a general project overview page, but I also put the links in the apps so I can jump back. For example, I may have a project page in Drafts with links to an OmniFocus project, but the OmniFocus project will also link back to the Drafts page. The trivial amount of time it takes to set up these links is paid off immediately. You can start linking things together today with no additional software. Most all of the app-based links I use work on the iPad as easily as they do the Mac.

If you want to go even further with this, I recommend downloading Hook on your Mac. Hook recently released version 2.0 that gives it even more features. Hook gives you extra tools for this linking workflow. Using Hook, you can keep associated links together in the Hook app. Hook also can put links on files and locations that aren’t otherwise linkable. For example, I use Hook to link documents on iCloud drive storage that would not be otherwise linkable. (However, these Hook links only work on the Mac.)

If you are reading this and rolling your eyes, I understand. If I came to this workflow intentionally (as I’m now recommending), I would have rolled my eyes too. Instead, this grew organically for me as the apps I use daily increasingly added linking features. (I’ll blame Drafts as my personal gateway drug.) Over the past six months, I have started to wake up to how often I am doing this direct linking and how much more efficient I am at getting work done without all of the distractions. In short, this stuff works, and you should try it.