The New Rift


This post by Peter Berkman gets closest to the meat of our collective concerns over the Oculus sale to Facebook. John Carmack even responded in the comments, while Palmer took to reddit. Raph Koster and Blair McIntyre do pretty good analyses in their own rights, putting the pieces together.

Disclaimer: I know many of the people mentioned here and consider them friends. I’m sticking to only what is publicly revealed information. And I am of course happy for these individuals who are getting to work on dream projects and making lots of money as a side benefit.

Here are some collected facts that are out in the open:

1. Industry Legends John Carmack and Michael Abrash have each talked publicly about wanting to build the Metaverse (of Snow Crash fame). I totally get what’s in this deal for them: build it with the right tech, the right people and at Facebook scale. Got to love the opportunity to realize that dream.

2. Cory Ondrejka (kick-ass VP of Mobile at Facebook) was formerly CTO of LindenLab/Second Life. He’s built a slightly less scalable version of the Metaverse already. Notice a “Mark, Chris and Cory” named in Palmer’s blog post. I have no doubt they’re completely sincere about wanting to see VR succeed in its own right.

3. Peter is also right in assuming that Oculus will add real gaze tracking. Palmer hints (skip to just before 19:00) about it here. Oculus is not alone, I expect. While there are many patents (of various quality) on this, there are still many viable ways to determine a user’s gaze, and many reasons to do so. Facebook has even more on its wishlist, I bet, beyond the basics of providing better visuals or more Natural UI.

4. Companies like Tobii make their living today by (effectively) enabling mind-reading via a user’s gaze. Your supermarket shelves were probably arranged with this kind of tech strapped to willing users. Your favorite website’s layout was probably tested using this tech in a lab. Just imagine the power of knowing what everyone is looking at and why, of being able to read subtle emotion in the face, including those micro-expressions that always reveal the truth.

5. Blair is also right that Zuckerberg’s AR long-term vision isn’t a typo. For all the arguments about VR vs. AR vs. camera-based vs. see-through being better for this or that, the bottom line is that VR sucks for mobile. That’s based purely on the old “wall meets face” principle, if not the geek factor of walking around talking to people with a brick over your eyes.

Facebook needs to win on mobile. Yes, it’ll take a few years just to get consumer-friendly seated VR right. But when Oculus eventually gets their glasses down to sunglass size and adds forward-facing cameras that mix real and virtual, then watch out[side]. Here’s the key part of Zuckerberg’s quote again:

But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.These are just some of the potential uses. By working with developers and partners across the industry, together we can build many more.

One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people. [emphasis mine]

6. I’ve heard Oculus folks also talk about telepresence as one of the killer apps for VR too, esp. when one can solve the “eye gaze” problem. You’ve probably experienced that in crappy modern video chat, which is generally how I’d imagine women feel when you stare at their chests. Interestingly, Cory’s old boss from Linden, Philip Rosedale, has announced he’s working on the eye gaze problem in his new startup too, and using some cool software called FaceShift to get a jump on the harder problems there.

[For full disclosure, I did some work on avatar-based telepresence as well, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result. FWIW, I found a better approach, which works with no hardware sitting on your face.]

7. Finally, Facebook makes its money by selling its users. Let’s not be coy. It’s a lot of money and a lot of users. To be fair, is it really any worse than how NBC offers up its users to advertisers (since before I was born)? Well, no and yes. It’s the same “ad, ad” world as before. We learn by age four to distrust the loud man on the TV. But the key difference is that NBC can’t see you, can’t really know your thoughts, except via gross statistics (think Neilsen ratings). Facebook really wants to know you, individually, and forever.

Now, companies like Facebook and Google provide immensely desirable services for free too, more so than NBC IMO. The problem lies in the concept of “informed consent.” Both tech companies still suck at the human stuff IMO, esp. in terms of giving users clear information up front to make that decision wisely, and then giving full control of their data after. It’s still mostly one-sided today, and it has to change.

Ideally, they’d start to emulate companies who’ve adopted an obsessive customer focus. It’s not about what people will tolerate, but what they really need. Earning our trust can’t be an afterthought or a win by attrition.

[for a positive comparison, TV’s “Neilsen families” give truly informed consent and the company promises not to market to them as well.]

So we come back to Peter’s insightful post. The problem with the Oculus sale is not that we all supported Palmer’s fortuitous kickstarter and got no share of the spoils. I got the product I ordered, still sitting in its box, alas. It’s not that he and Brendan Iribe “sold out” the indie gaming dream for big bucks. There are plenty of reasons to seek this level of protection and financial support in the light of Sony (and others) gearing up for a big fight. Gamers should be happy to have more viable options to choose from at the lowest prices.

Hell, I joined the so-called “evil empire” in 2008 to try to use their massive scale to do some good in the world, so who am I to judge? (jury is still out on my contributions, fwiw)

No. The heart of the problem is that VR is the most powerful means ever invented to pipe external ideas into your internal world. It’s pushing remote-controlled information almost directly into your brain via every sense possible. Consider that people believe a lot of crap they can’t even see. You’ll believe this crap on so many levels. That’s why it’s called virtual reality, ok? It’s as close to real as it gets, while still being entirely artificial.

The Facebook purchase highlights the reverse of that flow as well, reminding us that VR may become one of the best ways to pipe your internal world out — via data mining, classification and onto untold dissemination. That’s actually one of the reasons I got into the field, 20 years ago: to more easily tell stories that were rattling around my brain that would have taken millions of dollars and hundreds of people to produce as movies or games. But it has a dark side too, like when the information is sucked out of us without our informed consent or control.

Just think what the headlines would have said last week if Facebook had instead bought a brain-sensing startup like Emotiv, or invested in fMRI brain scanning tech to extract your thoughts. See what I’m talking about? VR doesn’t work quite the same way as those, but it gets to the same place in the end. The protective walls between you and the world come down in favor of more bandwidth in and out.

So closing that loop, even crafting individually designated virtual worlds using all of your private information, Facebook will own the most potent means available, short of mind-control drugs, to read and write to your private inner world, your thoughts, your actions, your dreams. It can free you, or it can enslave you.

What they do with it is entirely up to them (plus certain market and “other” forces). And if that doesn’t scare you, at least a little, then you may already be sold.

 

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