Facebook and the Future of Virtual Reality
For the past week or so, there has been a great deal of distress in the VR community, after Facebook announced on Aug. 18th that they would begin to require a Facebook account login for all Oculus devices starting in October.
Many VR enthusiasts (at least the vocal ones) have expressed that THIS IS A BAD THING. Facebook already has a nefarious plan to take over the world, steal our private information and identities, and spy on everything we do. Requiring a Facebook login for VR now means that all of this nefariousness will extend into VR. Now everything we do in virtual worlds, games, and media will be tracked and sold for advertising dollars. Our physical movements in VR will allow Facebook to build a biometric profile of each of us, which will risk our identities being impersonated by malicious agents. All of this will result in the downfall of society as we know it.
Let’s talk about the source of all the hubbub. Up to this point, Oculus users could use a separate Oculus ID (not a Facebook account) to login to Oculus VR headsets (such as the Quest and Rift). This will begin to change in October, when users who purchase a new Oculus device will be required to use their Facebook account to enjoy all the features of the headset. Existing Oculus ID users will need to merge their accounts prior to 2023.
From the Facebook announcement:
Starting in October 2020:
Everyone using an Oculus device for the first time will need to log in with a Facebook account.
If you are an existing user and already have an Oculus account, you will have the option to log in with Facebook and merge your Oculus and Facebook accounts.
If you are an existing user and choose not to merge your accounts, you can continue using your Oculus account for two years.
Starting In January 2023:
We will end support for Oculus accounts.
If you choose not to merge your accounts at that time, you can continue using your device, but full functionality will require a Facebook account.
We will take steps to allow you to keep using content you have purchased, though some games and apps may no longer work. This could be because they require a Facebook account or because a developer has chosen to no longer support the app or game you purchased.
Facebook’s rationale for making this change
Facebook has been up front about their reasons for making this change. If you believe what they are saying, their goal is to improve the user experience and enable the use of upcoming social features such as Facebook Horizon, which will enable connecting to friends and family in VR. Since most Oculus users are also Facebook users, it makes a lot of sense and helps to streamline the management of applications under the Facebook umbrella. The company elaborates on this in their announcement:
Giving people a single way to log into Oculus—using their Facebook account and password— will make it easier to find, connect, and play with friends in VR. We know that social VR has so much more to offer, and this change will make it possible to integrate many of the features people know and love on Facebook. It will also allow us to introduce more Facebook powered multiplayer and social experiences coming soon in VR, like Horizon, where you can explore, play, and create worlds. The majority of our users are already logging into Oculus with a Facebook account to use features like chats, parties, and events, or to tune into live experiences in Oculus Venues. We’re also making it easier to share across our platforms if you’d like. For example, people already have the option to livestream or share their VR experience on Facebook, and soon you’ll be able to use your VR avatar on other Facebook apps and technologies.
When you log in with a Facebook account, you can still create or maintain a unique VR profile. And if you don’t want your Oculus friends to find you by your Facebook name, they won’t—just make it visible to ‘Only Me’ in your Oculus settings. You can also choose what information about your VR activity you post to your Facebook profile or timeline, either by giving permission to post or by updating your settings. And we plan to introduce the ability for multiple users to log into the same device using their own Facebook account, so people can easily share their headset with friends or family while keeping their information separate.
Using a VR profile that is backed by a Facebook account and authentic identity helps us protect our community and makes it possible to offer additional integrity tools. For example, instead of having a separate Oculus Code of Conduct, we will adopt Facebook’s Community Standards as well as a new additional VR-focused policy. This will allow us to continue to take the unique considerations of VR into account while offering a more consistent way to report bad behavior, hold people accountable, and help create a more welcoming environment across our platforms. And as Facebook adds new privacy and safety tools, Oculus can adopt and benefit from them too.
What does this really mean?
Well, it means different things to different people.
Many VR users are already Facebook users, so for most of them it doesn’t matter. They have already
sold given their souls to Facebook and probably don’t care if this extends to their identity and behavior in VR. For the average user, it’s probably no big deal.
On the other hand, many VR enthusiasts are also privacy advocates and rightly concerned about Facebook’s history of misleading their user community. For these people, there is good reason to dislike this new development, as it only offers more evidence of Facebook’s dishonesty and tendency to manipulate users for its own gain. When Facebook originally acquired Oculus, they promised that users would never have to login with a Facebook account.
Those in opposition to the use of a Facebook account for VR are concerned about their ability to remain anonymous in VR, to protect their personal information and behavior in VR, and to maintain at least some sense of democracy by having a choice in what information they provide to Facebook.
As Facebook has evolved as a company over the years, the ability for users to manage what information is shared with others has continued to evolve along with it. Most of the time, users have been given the ability to control what information is public vs. private, by updating their profile and content settings. As long as this customization is also allowed in VR, users should be able to maintain their privacy at the level they want.
Facebook and the future of VR
Along with the news about merging user accounts, a few other interesting VR developments occurred at Facebook this week. First of all, the long-running user conference known as Oculus Connect has been renamed to Facebook Connect. In addition, Facebook’s entire VR and AR team has been renamed to Facebook Reality Labs.
Is the Oculus brand going away? Will future Oculus VR headsets be known as “Facebook VR” devices? This appears to be a likely scenario, if not for the immediate future then perhaps within the next few years.
Mark Zuckerberg strongly believes in the future of VR. Facebook has invested a lot of money into its own hardware and software, continues to acquire other developers, and continues to make improvements in its flagship device (the Oculus Quest). Will the next version be called the Facebook Quest? This remains to be seen, as it’s expected to launch before the end of 2020.
When Facebook Horizon finally launches, it will provide a new way for users (yes, only Facebook users) to socialize and play games in VR. Does this mean Facebook wants to own the Metaverse? Will it result in the demise of other social VR platforms like AltSpace, VRChat, and BigScreen?
Perhaps users who prefer not to use their Facebook ID to socialize in VR will flock to these other platforms, assuming the platforms can survive long enough to compete. Or perhaps they will just migrate to another Big Brother, Apple (when they finally launch a VR device and the inevitable need to login with Apple ID.)
Thankfully, there is some good news: VR users will still have the ability to choose which Big Brother they want to sign up with.
Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.