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.

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