Oculus-Quest
The Oculus Quest is a gamechanger for the VR industry as the inside-out tracking is an engineering marvel, & the untethered experience lowers the friction for being to easy jump into VR. My biggest hesitations with the Quest have more to do with my open questions around Facebook’s approach towards privacy and Facebook’s AR/VR strategy of turning the Quest platform into more of a closed, walled garden ecosystem with tighter curation policies.

chris-pruettI had a chance to talk with Oculus’ Director of Content Strategy Chris Pruett at F8 where I asked him about the new curation policies for the Quest, which he defended as being par for course for any app store ecosystem and other consoles like Sony.

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Oculus is being a lot more selective as to which titles make it onto the Quest because they’re trying to reduce the paradox of choice on the store for new consumers by focusing on high-quality games with more polish. They’d rather have developers focus on getting accepted by the gatekeepers of Oculus than having to worry about advertising in the midst of an overwhelming amount of low-quality applications. Maybe Facebook learned some lessons from the Oculus Go launch featuring over 1000 applications whereas the Quest will only be launching with just over 50 applications with a slow release of titles over time.

This will be great news for any developer who happens to get accepted by Oculus, but will likely make it a lot harder for smaller solo indie devs to get experimental content onto the Quest. Pruett emphasized that the Rift S and Go will still be a more open and democratic submission process, but these platforms have completely different design affordances, and the Quest offers completely new gameplay capabilities that aren’t possible on other platform. Pruett confirmed that it will be possible to sideload content on the Quest, but this may not be a viable distribution alternative for developers who don’t get officially accepted onto the Quest.

The Oculus Quest also seems to be heavily biased towards gaming and there’s going to be less diversity of content on it than is available on other platforms. It also increases the chance that Oculus will completely miss emerging trends within gaming or within non-gaming and non-entertainment areas. There were predecessors to Beat Saber like Soundboxing which were rejected from the Oculus Home store, and yet it’s a similar type of embodied gameplay of Beat Saber but with a lot less polish.

Pruett claims that no one could have ever predicted how popular Beat Saber would be (check out my thoughts on Beat Saber on the day it launched), but yet Oculus seemed to be focused a lot more on aesthetic fidelity and visual polish over the types of embodied gameplay innovations that were coming from games like Soundboxing, which was one of the rhythm game predecessors to the international phenomenon of Beat Saber. How many other future Beat Saber type of breakthroughs will be missed because these innovations won’t be able to be captured within a concept document pitch or that the curators won’t understand the fundamental experiential design innovations of something that’s never been done before?

The Quest marks a strategic shift towards a more closed, walled garden ecosystem, and while I can understand that this will likely provide a better short-term experience for both the accepted developers and a critical mass of a mainstream gaming audience, there are bigger concerns of how this represents a move away from having VR as an open platform. No one company should own VR as a communications medium, and this focus on closed, walled garden ecosystems is copying the app store business models of Apple and Google and applying to VR. Internet go through apps has been a devastating blow to the principles of the open web, and within the next five to ten years then I’d hope that we will have a lot more open hardware and software ecosystem alternatives. Perhaps WebXR will be one open alternative, and Pruett did emphasizes the support of WebXR through the Oculus Browser, which is shipping on the Quest. But it’s also an open question for how much the Quest will be supporting the OpenXR standard or if that will only apply to PC-based VR systems like the Rift S.

My other big concern about Facebook is around privacy. I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to anyone at Facebook during F8 about my open questions on privacy as it was a pretty huge emphasis. There were a lot of top-down pronouncements made during F8, and not as many embodied actions from the ground-up to provide evidence that there will be any deeply meaningful change around Facebook’s underlying philosophy of privacy.

Part of the focus on privacy may have been more for PR and investors as Facebook was just hit by a Federal Trade Commission fine of up to $5 billion dollars for violating their 2011 F.T.C. consent decree settlement.

But Mark Zuckerberg came out at F8 and declared that the future is private. Facebook talked a lot about the privacy of the content of written communication, but I have many open questions around Facebook’s philosophy on biometric data privacy, especially when you take a look at Facebook’s patents on detecting your emotion, facial expressions, and mood that may or may not be already be deployed today on any mobile app where you’ve granted Facebook permission to use your camera. There’s no obligation for Facebook to disclose that they’re secretly recording our emotions as we look at content, and anyone who has agreed to their privacy policy has consented for them to do it.

But F8 showed me that Facebook has a very narrow definition for what they mean by “privacy,” where they seemed to focus primarily on the content of interpersonal communications. But Facebook didn’t announce a completely new or different business model that moves away from surveillance capitalism. They didn’t announce any changes to their privacy policies for what they can and can not collect including “information about your online and offline actions and purchases from third-party data providers who have the rights to provide us with your information.”

There was a lot of emphasis on encrypting the content of written messages of video conferencing, but Facebook didn’t mention anything about not collecting metadata of who you’re talking with and when. Facebook didn’t say that they’re going to stop creating psychographic profiles about our values, preferences, hobbies, or interests. So while there were promising announcements about end-to-end encryption, there were many more questions unanswered around their embodied actions and historical behavior around privacy.

But because there isn’t a universally accepted or comprehensive philosophical framework around how to precisely define privacy, then it’s up to each company to come up with their own definition. Facebook’s definition of what they mean by “privacy” is extremely narrow. Facebook will likely be starting to more explicitly have to define their definition of privacy as a part of their settlement with the latest Federal Trade Commission fine where the New York Times reports that “Facebook has agreed to create a privacy committee to protect its users’ data, as well as an external assessor who would be appointed by the company and F.T.C.”

The idea of an independent review board for privacy was one of the biggest suggestions to come out of the VR Privacy Summit last fall, which you can check out the summary in this interview (as well as well over 20 interviews about privacy concerns for AR/VR.)

But my biggest concern is whether or not any of these F.T.C. auditors or other journalists are aware of the entirely new realm of biometric data privacy that is emerging with AR and VR. Facebook already holds a number of patents where they detail how they’re able to secretly turn on our cameras to extract our emotions as we’re looking at specific content on our mobile phones. Their plans are detailed in this really scary and somewhat dystopian patent for techniques for emotion detection and content delivery as first reported by CB Insights in 2017.

FB-emotion-detection-and-content-delivery

Here’s the passage of Facebook’s patent on harvesting emotions where they describe how they plan on secretly spy on you with “passive imaging information” from your front-facing camera “imaging component” in order to capture and record your emotional reaction to content.

Users of computing devices spend increasing amounts of time browsing streams of posts on social networks, news articles, video, audio, or other digital content. The amount of information available to users is also increasing. Thus, a need exists for delivering content a user that may be of current interest to them. For example, a user’s interests may be determined based upon their current emotional state. Computing devices such as laptops, mobile phones, and tablets increasingly include at least one, and often more than one, imaging component, such as a digital camera. Some devices may include a front-facing camera that is positioned on the same side of the device as a display. Thus, during normal operation, a user may be looking towards the imaging component. However, current content delivery systems typically do not utilize passive imaging information. Thus, a need exists for a content delivery solution that takes advantage of available passive imaging data to provide content to a user with improved relevancy.

I don’t know whether or not Facebook is actively using this patent to secretly harvest emotional reactions while you’re looking at content, but just the fact that Facebook is architecting a way to utilize this type of “passive imaging information” with your front-facing camera speaks to how valuable the new frontier of biometric data and emotional reactions correlated to the content you’re looking at is going to be. If this is what they’re doing on mobile phones, then just wait until the gold mine of biometric data is going to be unlocked with immersive technologies like virtual reality.

By the way, Facebook is not alone in wanting to harvest our emotions as Snapchat also aims to detect mood from selfies. Noah Levenson’s interactive AR documentary Stealing UR Feelings that premiered at Tribeca Immersive 2019 also covered how other companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, and other major companies are all trying to find ways of secretly harvesting our emotional reactions.

But my sense from listening to Facebook at F8 is that they’re trying to define privacy very narrowly as our explicit interpersonal communication that we consciously consent to, but they’re not talking about all of the levels of biometric data privacy for new levels of emotional input being made available with immersive technologies like VR/AR, mobile cameras, depth sensor cameras, and eventually in future immersive technologies that include biometric data from eye tracking information, galvanic skin response, emotional reactions, facial movements from EMG, heartrate from ECG, and eventually brainwaves from brain-control interfaces and EEG.

Facebook has yet to release any technology that has these more advanced biometric data sensors, but it’s definitely on their technological roadmap as they have shown plenty of demos to are able to extrapolate emotional reactions so that they can be depicted in virtual avatars.

Facebook hasn’t spoken specifically about their plans around how they plan on using biometric data to be able to capture and record our emotional reactions to content, and they often dodge questions about future potentials of biometric data capture by leaning on the fact that they haven’t released any hardware that can capture it yet.

But the way that Oculus’ privacy policy (as of September 2018) is written, then it’s ambiguous as to whether or not it’s already allows them to start recording, capturing, and using new biometric data streams as soon as they’re made available. I had an opportunity to talk with the architects of Oculus’ privacy policy last year, and they didn’t answer whether or not the privacy policy allowed them to capture and record biometric data.

A common strategy by Facebook is for them say that they’re not currently doing something that their privacy policy allows them to do. One example is in a Privacy Polity FAQ that was released with their GDPR privacy policy update last April where they said, “Is my Oculus data used to target ads to me on Facebook? We don’t share data with Facebook that would allow third parties to target advertisements based on your use of the Oculus Platform.”

But the Oculus privacy policy allows for all sorts of data to be passed back and forth between Oculus and Facebook.

Third parties may also collect information about you through the Services, as described below.

Related companies. Depending on which services you use, we receive information about you from other companies that are within the family of related companies that are legally part of the same group of companies that Oculus is part of, or that become part of that group, such as Facebook, and combine that information with other information we collect about you.

So their privacy policy allows them to share whatever they want between the two companies, and so if they wanted to start using information from Oculus to start targeting ads on Facebook, then they could start doing that today. Especially considering that the differentiation between Oculus as an independent entity and Facebook itself has all but functionally disappeared, which is reflected in the fact that the Oculus Privacy Policy was changed on September 4, 2018 to say “Oculus is brought to you by Facebook Technologies, LLC (formerly known as Oculus VR, LLC)” from what it said in the previous May 20th revision that “Oculus is brought to you by Oculus VR, LLC.”

Facebook would like us to think about privacy as a fixed object that once they say something, then it’s always true. But privacy is a process. Whatever the Oculus privacy architects told me about what they are and are not doing a year ago can not be assumed that it’s still the case today. It can change at any moment, and Facebook isn’t obligated to let anyone know what data is or is not being recorded at any moment. In the absence of having an updated status about what is and isn’t being recorded, then the only thing that consumers have is to be able to take a worst-case scenario interpretation of what is laid out in their privacy policy.

So while I’m genuinely really excited about the potential of the Quest as an inflection point in the overall adoption of virtual reality technologies, I think there are a lot of concerning open questions about Facebook’s recent pivot on their philosophy and strategy around privacy, and whether or not the Quest is always going to remain a closed platform and a highly-curated software ecosystem.

Mobile VR has the potential to become the dominant mode of experiencing virtual reality, and it’s a new paradigm communication medium that deserves to remain an open platform for innovation. There are no guarantees that Facebook will continue to always support PC VR as they’re already outsourcing the production of Rift S in collaboration with Lenovo, and if the Quest is wildly successful as a closed platform then Zuckerberg’s AR/VR strategic vision statement from 2015 may lead Facebook to move more towards closed, walled gardens rather than fostering open ecosystems.

My sense is that Oculus Quest will indeed be a vital next step in the evolution of virtual reality as a medium, but I still have many open questions about the future of open ecosystems and VR as an open platform as well as Facebook’s commitment to creating a truly private future that we all want to live in.

Facebook is going to have to do a lot more than make some grand proclamations at their F8 developer conference to really convince me that they’re honestly interested in the full complexity and naunce of privacy concerns. I’ll be watching their embodied actions and hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to ask them directly about their philosophy around the capturing and recording of biometric data that will be made available with immersive technologies.

For more information about my previous 20+ interviews about privacy in VR, then be sure to check out the interviews listed here.

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Disclosure: Oculus provided the Voices of VR with a Quest headset.

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Music: Fatality

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