Facebook took a step forward yesterday that many had predicted for years: it began placing adverts within virtual reality. The company said it would expand the system based on user feedback after launching a limited test of adverts inside three Oculus Quest apps.
The move marks a watershed moment for Oculus, as it introduces one of Facebook’s most divisive features to a medium that evokes both hope and fear. It also highlights three major concerns about Facebook’s future as well as immersive computing.
The first question is how closely Facebook will link advertising to hardware sensor data in the future. Oculus Quest headgear is a gold mine of information about you, even more so than smartphones. They use tracking cameras to capture the accurate head and hand motion, as well as photographs of your surroundings and microphone sounds for Facebook’s voice command system. Future headsets are anticipated to contain even more personal features, such as eye-tracking, which would provide highly exact measurements of what draws your attention in virtual reality.
Currently, Facebook claims that much of this data never leaves your headset or is totally isolated from its advertising system and that it has “no plans” to target ads based on movement data. However, if Facebook advances further into virtual and augmented reality, monetizing its hardware’s unique capabilities will become a more appealing option.
Facebook is rumored to be working on a fitness tracker and has talked about developing augmented reality glasses to interact with the world. Even if Facebook Reality Labs head Andrew Bosworth has said the company is “not really focused on business model” questions for experimental hardware, these products are custom-built to produce quantifiable insights about your body and surroundings, it’s hard to believe Facebook doesn’t have plans to monetize them. Oculus is Facebook’s first significant test case for advertising on its own computing device, and we’ll see how it handles the plethora of new data types it’s collecting when it expands ads on VR and other gadgets.
The second question concerns how advertisements will influence VR development. Several of the most popular VR games currently feel like solid consoles or PC games and sell for similar prices. On the other hand, it’s still unclear which app genres perform best with an ad-supported approach. (Boston, the earliest game we know of with adverts, is a multiplayer dueling game in which you compete in brief rounds.) Whatever those genres are, Facebook has just created an incentive for developers to produce a lot more of them, because they get a part of the income.
It’s easy to picture dystopian scenarios like the seizure-inducing corporate hellscape from Ready Player One, or a massive library of attention-grabbing but low-quality games and social apps plastered with pop-ups. The fact that Facebook’s initial testing resembles flat banner ads from a website or a freeware game doesn’t help matters. However, Facebook is infamous for being choosy about what gets added to the Quest library, and there’s no sign that will change anytime soon.
We also don’t know what form VR advertising will take in the future. Facebook is now testing “new ad forms that are unique to VR,” according to the company. It didn’t say what that looked like, but one atypical ad platform to consider is Fortnite – a popular virtual world from a studio with a stellar gaming track record, and one of the most effective ad delivery systems in the current cultural milieu. (A system in which participants pay to promote multinational media conglomerates’ intellectual property is potentially dystopian, but most people appear to accept it.) Because of commercial tie-ins and sponsorships, modern consumer VR headsets have been crammed with advertisements since the outset. The news from yesterday was only the latest version of a long-running pattern.
But there’s a significant Facebook-shaped wrinkle in this version. The Quest advertising are based on information from your Facebook profile, and Facebook’s hyper-personalization is a contentious feature that has been attacked as a weapon for social division in general and discrimination in particular. Beyond any bigger social implications, having your friends and family see what Facebook thinks you’re into could feel invasive if you’re sharing a headset. Multiple accounts can be added to a Quest headset, but the feature is still in beta, and it’s unclear how many people are aware of it.
And this leads to the third question: how will Facebook and its opponents address broader worries about “Big Tech” in VR? Should Facebook, for example, prohibit certain types of ads — or ad distribution mechanisms — from showing in headsets? Should consumer watchdogs look at how ads function within the Oculus platform, which they’ve largely overlooked when scrutinizing Facebook?
These debates had a foregone conclusion. For years, Facebook has sought to be the owner of the future computing platform, and their vision of computing is heavily reliant on advertising. Palmer Luckey, the creator of Oculus, once pledged that the firm would not “display adverts at you” inside VR, but he (along with other early Oculus execs) left the company years ago. In 2015, Bosworth stated that the Oculus experience “should include advertisements, because life has advertisements.”
Facebook, on the other hand, claims it isn’t merely going ahead with a long-held master plan; instead, it promises to take input into account as it moves forward with VR advertising. Quest users and developers will be able to assess if Facebook delivers this promise as VR becomes more integrated into the company’s core business.