Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

next-upnext upauthorJanko RoettgersNoneDo you know what's coming next up in the world of tech and entertainment? Get Janko Roettgers' newsletter every Thursday.9147dfd6b1
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
Power

How Facebook wants to avoid the next AR/VR backlash

The company's decisions to discontinue Rift PC VR headsets, and build AR glasses, aren't going over well with everyone.

Facebook Project Aria

A Facebook employee wearing the company's experimental Project Aria research glasses.

Photo: Facebook

Someone is always going to be pissed off. This time, Facebook wants to be ready.

The social media giant announced its latest and greatest in AR and VR at its Facebook Connect conference Wednesday, including a new version of its Oculus Quest VR headset that is faster, cheaper and features a better display, all while costing $100 less than its predecessor. Despite those impressive specs, Facebook will undoubtedly face some backlash for its big bet on the Quest, and AR and VR in general.

For starters, Facebook also revealed Wednesday that it is discontinuing the Rift line of PC VR headsets to solely focus on Quest, an announcement that is likely going to rub VR early adopters the wrong way. Beyond that, Facebook's work on spatial computing is attracting scrutiny from critics, with some arguing that a company with a poor track record on privacy shouldn't be building hardware that will ultimately introduce omnipresent body-worn cameras into our everyday lives.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, head of Facebook Reality Labs Andrew "Boz" Bosworth and Facebook Reality Labs head of privacy and trust Jenny Hall recently talked to Protocol to outline how they want to preempt such a backlash with a set of "responsible innovation principles" — a kind of guidance on how to take values like privacy, inclusivity and accessibility into account while building Facebook's future AR and VR products. Bosworth and Schroepfer also argued that Facebook's focus on the Quest, and its discontinuation of the Rift product line, is ultimately a net positive for the entire VR community.

Why Facebook decided to kill the Rift

Facebook already ruffled some feathers when it recently announced that it would phase out Oculus logins for its VR devices. Coupled with the decision to discontinue the Rift line of PC VR headsets, the company will likely face a significant backlash from early adopters.

"I want everyone to like us," Bosworth said, "but you want to make sure that you're building for a community broader than where you started." Concentrating on the Quest made it easier for the company to attract new users to VR, which would ultimately benefit everyone, he argued; 90% of the people who tried the Quest this year had never tried an Oculus headset before, according to data shared by Facebook. "What's going to inspire more developers to focus their best content in VR? Having a bigger audience to serve," Bosworth said.

Schroepfer echoed those remarks. "I've got a gaming PC, and I love playing with it," he said. "I get it. It's awesome. But if I don't have the consumer base, I can't get the developer base, I'm not going to get the content I want."

Killing the Rift was also a question of better allocating Facebook's resources to further that goal of a broader audience, Bosworth said. "We can take the engineering energy and pour it into making the best headsets we can," he said. "We've managed to figure out how to get, frankly, more energy ported to building better VR features from the same size of engineering team, rather than dividing across two different lines, PC and standalone."

Bosworth also defended the decision to make Facebook logins mandatory for the company's headsets as a way for people to be themselves, and connect to their real-world friends, in VR. "We get it. In VR, you may want to be Batman," he joked. "But you may also want to be Bruce Wayne. Right now, it's no problem to be Batman in VR, and we want to continue to support that use case indefinitely. But we also want to support the Bruce Wayne use case."

New rules for hardware that doesn't exist yet

In addition to unveiling the Quest 2, Facebook also used Wednesday's event to announce a new research device called Project Aria that is meant to gather data for the development of the company's forthcoming AR glasses. At this point, Project Aria is simply a set of glasses with built-in sensors — cameras, microphones and more — without any display. "We are hand-building 100 units," Bosworth said. "It'll be worn by employees in the Bay Area and Seattle area. The point of it is to gather data sets from the point of view of the human head, which will help us hopefully figure out what sensors we need."

Facebook first announced that it was building its own set of AR glasses at last year's Connect conference. Bosworth told Protocol that it may take years to solve some remaining technical challenges before AR glasses can become mainstream, but the company isn't waiting that long for the next inevitable backlash. Instead, it is trying to anticipate privacy and other ethical challenges early on.

For Project Aria, Facebook is quarantining any data collected for three days, which it will use to blur faces and license plates. Facebook employees who wear Project Aria headsets are also instructed not to enter restrooms or rooms of worship, and will wear T-shirts that explain what they are doing.

"We're looking at creating technology for which no social norms exist," Hall explained. "There's not a playbook to follow. Some of this technology hasn't even been invented yet."

To this end, the "responsible innovation principles" are supposed to guide the company's work on existing and future hardware products. These include commitments to transparency ("never surprise people"), empowerment of users ("provide controls that matter") and diversity and inclusion ("consider everyone"), as well as a vague promise to put people's interest over profits if the company ever has to directly weigh one against the other.

"The principles are the first steps to ensure that our teams know that we expect them to be thinking about these things," explained Hall. "We expect them to be thinking about the potential abuses of our technology."

Hall acknowledged that the company does have some blind spots. "Underrepresented minorities and other vulnerable populations may have different privacy concerns than I do, for example," she said. As a remedy for these blind spots, Facebook is soliciting input from outside researchers on how to best adhere to its responsible innovation principles. The company announced two requests for proposals for around a dozen research grants Wednesday to learn about making social VR safer, and to explore the impact AR and VR can have on bystanders in general, and underrepresented communities in particular.

"We want to make sure that we're considering our technology from the perspectives of people all over the world and people with different abilities and different circumstances," Hall said.

Facebook's difficult services legacy and its hardware future

It's unlikely that these innovation principles alone will placate critics of the company. To be fair, there may not always be an easy answer. Facebook's commitments to investigate AR's potential impact on racism and inequality, for instance, sounds good on paper. But how will the company really react once law enforcement agencies put in orders for its future AR glasses? How will it weigh potential contributions to public safety against concerns that this technology may exacerbate systemic racism?

The flip side is that Facebook is investigating these issues now, years before it is ready to sell AR hardware. That's very different from the way Facebook has approached software and services development in the past, and one could argue it's a direct result of the issues Facebook has been facing in recent years around privacy, content moderation and its impact on society as a whole.

"When we had onboardings when we were in the office, I would actually start my new engineer onboardings with a list of bad headlines about the company," Schroepfer recalled. "And I would say: Get used to it. We deserve the scrutiny, because we build products that affect a lot of people's lives."

Whether Facebook's checkered past and present as a software and services company actually makes it a better hardware company remains to be seen. On Wednesday, it put out the signal that it is willing to try. "I think we have to work harder, be better," Schroepfer said. "That's fine with me."

Correction: This post was updated Sept. 17 to correct the titles of Jenny Hall and Andrew Bosworth.

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

Keep Reading Show less
Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

Keep Reading Show less
J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories