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Oculus Connect has been rebranded Facebook Connect, and what would have been Oculus Connect 7 is now Facebook Connect 1. Facebook Connect happened on September 16, 2020, and I talked with Doug North Cook on the following day. North Cook is the founding faculty for the Immersive Media Program at Chatam University in Pittsburg, PA, as well as the founding instructor for the immersive design residency for the Falling Water Institute. At Oculus Connect 6 last year, I did a OC6 keynote debriefing with North Cook about privacy implications and accessibility concerns, and so I wanted to check with him again to get his impressions of the Facebook Connect 1 keynote this year.

North Cook says that the name change from Oculus Connect to Facebook Connect is good indicator of the overall tonal shift of having Facebook take more and more control over the future of VR and AR. Facebook presented a lot of their speculative designs of their vision of the future of augmented reality, but we both shared a lot of questions around the merits of an always-on, contextually-aware, AI personal assistant that requires extensive “egocentric data capture” for training with glasses that track everything in your world that correlates what you’re looking at via eye tracking data. We both didn’t find the use cases shown during the keynote to be particularly compelling, and certainly not enough to merit this level of encroaching on our own privacy, but also the privacy of those around us. North Cook wondered if this emphasis on this type of vision for the future of AR was actually more motivated by a long-term data play and desire to capture as much data as they can about us as we move about the world.

We also talked about the recent anti-trust hearings featuring Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Google / Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai. These tech companies are becoming bigger and more powerful than any individual government, but they have little to no democratic transparency for how their tech platforms are becoming the de facto online public spaces. North Cook says that any consultation with any of the big tech companies would be under strict NDA, and so these companies are reaching out to experts for consultation on issues around privacy, but these discussions are often happening behind closed doors.

We cover some of the other news and announcements from Facebook Connect 1, but I’m also left with the feeling of finding it more and more difficult to have an interactive dialogue with Facebook on topics within the public sphere. Facebook’s previous social VR efforts have been shuttered, and the Facebook Venues and Facebook Horizon are still in early beta and closed beta phases, and so there was little effort by Facebook to try to have meaningful social VR gatherings that brought that wider XR industry together. Their virtual conference sessions were all pre-recorded, and there was no opportunity for any type of live Q&A. A theme coming out of Facebook Connect 1 was that there was little to no effort to facilitate any meaningful two-way communication between the wider XR community and people working at Facebook.

There are so many ethical questions about the future of AR and VR, but yet there has been very little public engagement on any these issues up to this point. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did tell The Verge’s Casey Newton that “One of the things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that you don’t want to wait until you have [XR ethical] issues to be discussing how you want to address them. And not just internally — having a social conversation publicly about how society thinks these things should be addressed.”

But as far as I can tell, all of these “public” conversations that Facebook may have been having on these issues are still happening behind closed doors. Facebook put out a white paper looking at the challenges around notice and consent and said that in the coming months they want to have “conversations with regulators, civil society, academics, and other companies around the world to dive into the questions raised in this paper.” But when I asked for details for how to participate both publicly and privately, then I get the distinct impression that journalists will not be allowed to attend or cover any of these gatherings or conversations.

During Facebook Connect, Andrew Bosworth said that they got feedback from privacy advocates that it’s not about what they say, but it’s about what they actually do. At this point, I’m still seeing a lot of rhetoric about the desire to have public conversations on these XR ethics and XR privacy issues, but again I’m having a hard time getting clear answers about when and where these conversations will be happening in a context that isn’t under NDA or behind closed doors where journalists like myself are invited to participate and report on those public conversations.

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