VR for Facebook is not about gaming, it's about details, surprise, surprise.


3 min read

Considering the social media giant's verified history of privacy and data, the compulsory connection to Facebook has many customers worried. Perhaps the most data-extractive digital sensors that we're likely to welcome into our homes in the next decade are VR and its cousin, augmented reality (AR).




[Read: Are EVs too costly? Five common myths here, debunked]


Why does Facebook render headsets for virtual reality?
For an estimated US$2.3 billion, Facebook purchased VR company Oculus in 2014. But Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg wants social media VR, where Oculus initially targeted gamers.


"Last year, at the same gathering, Zuckerberg said Facebook sees VR as a road to a different kind of "social computing network" using the increased "presence" feeling that VR offers. For Facebook, the implementation of VR-based computing would be like the jump to the graphical user interfaces we use today from text-based command line interfaces.





This may well be right. VR provides a clear sense of embodied presence that provides new opportunities at a distance for entertainment, training, learning, and communicating with others.


But if Facebook is "working in the laboratory" on the future of VR, it will run via the company's current social computing network and business model to extract data to produce targeted advertising.


Virtual reality gathers true data
A headset for VR gathers knowledge about the user, but also about the outside world. This is one of the main ethical challenges of "mixed reality" technologies that are evolving.


As Jeremy Bailenson, the American VR researcher, has written:


Commercial VR systems usually monitor body movements 90 times per second to accurately view the scene, and high-end systems record 18 styles of head and hand movements. Spending 20 minutes in a VR simulation therefore leaves just under 2 million unique body language recordings.


You can use the way you move your body, like a fingerprint, to mark you, so anything you do in VR can be tracked back to your individual identity.


Oculus Quest headsets from Facebook often use outward-facing cameras to track their surroundings and map them.







Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) is used by Facebook VR headsets to monitor the headset's movements in 3D space. This is yet another way to gather world data.
Facebook said at the end of 2019 that they "do not collect and store today on our servers images or 3D maps of your environment." Note the word today, which tech journalist Ben Lang notes makes it clear that in the future the company is not rule out anything.


Digital truth applies to augmented reality
To promote its plans for augmented reality, Facebook wants to collect this data (AR).


Where VR brings a user to a completely immersive world, AR blends our real environment with virtual elements.


The Live Maps application, a vision of an expansive surveillance apparatus presumably operated by AR glasses and Oculus Insight data, was unveiled by Facebook last year. For Facebook users, Live Maps can have several minor conveniences, such as letting you know you have left your keys on the coffee table.




In the video above, the Live Maps application from Facebook is a vision of an AR network owned by Facebook.
Now, Facebook has revealed its first steps: Project Aria, to make this a reality. In order to collect the data to create what Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly calls "the mirrorworld," the next major tech network, individuals wearing glass-like sensors across Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area will be involved.


People are understandably worried about the ethical consequences of data extraction of this sort. Facebook released its Responsible Engineering Values page alongside Project Aria, and they are already swift to stress that in this data collection, faces and license plates will be blurred.


As we have argued elsewhere, framing VR and AR surveillance issues in terms of individual privacy serves businesses like Facebook very well. That's because the (un)ethical use of data (as in the case of Cambridge Analytica) and their asymmetric network control are basically their past failures.


We need more than just technical ethics.
Groups such as the XR Safety Initiative identify these emerging challenges and are starting to work on specifications, guidelines, and privacy mechanisms to influence the development of VR and AR.


What is known as the Collingridge dilemma is faced by many new technologies: it is difficult to anticipate the different impacts of a technology until it is extensively implemented and widely used, but it is almost impossible to monitor or alter by then.


We see this happening right now, in an attempt to control the dominance of Google and Facebook over the news media.





As David Watts suggests, to escape oversight and transparency, big tech designs its own ethical rules:


Feelgood, the ideals of high-level data ethics are not fit for the purpose of governing big tech... Only proper regulation can fix the harms linked to big tech.


What would Facebook's VR regulations look like? One such reaction is offered by Germany, with its antitrust laws contributing to Facebook removing the headset from sale. We can only hope that technology will not become too entrenched to modify or question itself.


In the past, however, rules have not always hindered Facebook, which paid US$550 million to settle a lawsuit for violating biometric privacy laws. It's just the cost of doing business in the multi-billion dollar big-tech world.


Another question we might ask ourselves is whether there really needs to be a virtual-reality future for Facebook and others like it. Perhaps there are other ways to stop losing your keys. The Talk
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Marcus Carter, Senior Lecturer in Emerging Cultures, SOAR Fellow, University of Sydney, and Ben Egliston, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Digital Media Research Centre, University of Technology of Queensland, under a Creative Commons license, republished this article from The Discussion. Read the article from the original.