Refocusing the Oculus Debate: The All-Seeing Eye
Up until now, the debate over Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR has mostly revolved around more qualitative questions: What are Facebook’s plans for Oculus, and are they in line with the interests of the audience who launched the company to stardom? How will a Facebook-run Oculus affect the end experience for the user? There may however be bigger ethical quandaries that are being mostly overlooked.
An Unparalleled Privacy Issue
In a post on his personal blog, Peter Berkman, of the chiptunes band Anamanaguchi, suggests that not only are experiential problems like the insertion of ads into the Oculus experience never going to happen (as a diluted experience would dissuade many from using the VR goggles), it’s also the least of users’ worries.
“[B]etween head & iris tracking, in-game data, and Facebook’s incredible systems—there will be a plethora of information to mine along with the ability and intent to do it. It is infinitely easier to mine data in a completely simulated reality — Facebook will know where you’re looking, what you’re doing, and how long you do it. The data promised to them by VR (tele-conference meetings, games that portray our deepest desires, fears and fantasies) is everything they wish they could gather in the real world. When they cross-reference that with all the other information they already have on a billion people (faces, social dynamics, etc), suddenly there is one company with a lot of control.”
Berkman isn’t wrong, but although the revelation that a single company like Facebook will be sitting on a little-paralleled mountain of data such as this is a bit unnerving, it would be naive to say that this sort of scenario isn’t already the case. There are already a number of companies dedicated to tracking everything you do (and don’t do) on the web, and turning it into information that other companies can act on and profit from. Whether you stay on a particular page and for how long, what you see and click (or don’t), all translates into valuable demographic information that someone can use to better market their product to the people most likely to buy it. The truth is, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What’s going to change (in a big way) with the arrival of widespread VR technologies is the level of detail in that data, and an enhanced ability to associate you as a person in the real world with the mountain of information about you. This issue was inevitable (and perhaps already at hand), whether it was Facebook at the helm, any one of a dozen other big-data companies. If we want to curtail the abilities of these companies to spy us and profit from our (potentially sensitive) data, then we’re going to need new internet privacy laws. We’ve been building Big Brother’s eyes for years, but it’s up to us to change what he can see, and which master he serves (us or them).
As the discussion continues, Oculus continues to bring on new talent. Their latest hire is another Valve veteran, developer Aaron Nicholls, who is known for his research on VR. One must wonder how Valve is taking this ongoing employee exodus, but it does bode well for the advancement of VR technologies.
Facebook Purchase Still a Plus Overall?
“From the moment I first saw the Rift, I knew it was something special. I can tell you firsthand that the team behind the headset has a true passion for making VR tomorrow’s standard. In order for the Rift to succeed, it really needed a lot more funding than it has raised from its past two VC rounds. Hardware is expensive: it’s one thing to perfect the technology, but before you can sell a single Rift, you need to spend hundreds of millions on manufacturing and building a supply chain if you intend to make the Rift (and Virtual Reality) relevant for the mass market... My hope is that Facebook’s funding will let Oculus compete with much bigger companies and deliver an attractively priced consumer headset at the scale needed for mass market adoption without the loss of the incredible passion that convinced me to back the project.”
As more and more cool heads prevail in what is undoubtedly an emotional discussion, I’m finding myself leaning towards the notion that in terms of what gamers want (the arrival of the next, and perhaps final frontier of gaming), Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR is a very good thing. On the front of internet privacy, the deal is simply hastening the approach of what was already an inevitable battle.
It’s unlikely the fight for rights on the net will be an easy one, but it’s one we can win. While there are surely many lobbyists with deep pockets interested in eliminating the right to internet privacy, there are more of us than there are of them. As with any social reform, the first step is caring enough to get involved.