Facebook’s VR ads spark backlash and renewed interest in workarounds

in #technology5 months ago (edited)

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     Ever since Facebook’s acquisition in 2014 VR community keeps bringing up various grievances and fears and asking whether Oculus and virtual reality as a medium, in general, are not going down the path similar to the one pictured in Ready Player One. After all, Oculus is already operating an ecosystem where Facebook logins are mandatory, terms and conditions allow for data surveillance, and a walled garden approach means all apps have to go through a stringent curation process before they are accepted into the store.

     Given all of that, is it no wonder that the recent announcement from Andrew Bozworth that Oculus will now start putting ads inside VR generated a lot of negative sentiment. For many, allowing a centralized ad system foreshadows Facebook’s direction with its social media giant, where ads served as a gateway to more aggressive data-driven solutions down the road. Namely, targeted advertisement (so that ads generate more revenue) and attention economy ( so that users are incentivised to spend as much time connected as possible). Bozworth’s initial tweet got ridiculed, social media quickly filled with memes and discussion boards full of people venting their discontent. Angry gamers also took it to Oculus Store and review-bombed Blaston — one of the games that were supposed to be included in the initial ad rollout (as a result, Blaston since changed their mind and pulled out of the pilot, arguing ads may be a better fit for their other game Bait which is free to play).


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Suggested VR ad implementation

     But this growing backlash is not just limited to tweets and memes. Recent months have spawned a surprisingly large number of workarounds designed to countermeasure Facebook’s growing control over the VR ecosystem. Some are more symbolic than factual, but some actually work, allowing gamers to bypass the need to have a FB account. Bastian is one of such pioneers. Also known as Basti564, he is the author of an app called Oculess. It allows users to disable telemetry: a protocol responsible for collecting and sending all the data to Facebook servers. It’s possibly the least invasive method out there, as it allows users to continue using Oculus Store as normal, play all the games, both single and multiplayer, and generally, experience little to no inconvenience. So far, the only issue noticed relates to inviting users to games via Facebook messenger, but in-game lobbies work fine, and Bastian also made sure users can enable Telemetry back if needed.

      What if someone wants to ignore Oculus entirely and remove it from both their Quest and from their mobile phone? Well, Basti564 got this figured as well. His app allows users to disable companion app entirely, though doing so strips Quest of most of its functionalities. Instead of seeing Oculus Store, users are presented with an error message “It seems we’re unable to connect to your account.” It’s still possible to run Sidequest and connect to wi-fi, but every type of interaction with Oculus API is broken. Even something as simple as changing virtual environments will not work. So contrary to the previous measure (disabling telemetry), this one is actually way more drastic and comes with a lot of inconveniences. Still, it has found its crowd.

      Another solution that came up a while ago is based on the idea of downgrading the companion app to one of the earlier versions (one that precedes mandatory FB logins). There was no Quest 2 at that time, but if users select Quest 1 instead, the headset will get unlocked anyway. It’s a good workaround for those that still have access to their original Oculus accounts (and didn’t merge it with Facebook). It allows them to buy games, play the ones they already owned and generally do anything you could do on Quest 1 with an unmerged account. This method was popularised by a Youtuber @Noborschtforyou, who himself found out about it from Reddit. Obviously less and fewer people have access to original Oculus accounts, and those who still do should be aware these accounts are set to expire on the 1st of January 2023, as per Facebook’s announcement.

     Then there are developer accounts or test accounts as they’re called. By definition, these accounts are meant to aid developers in their work but can also be used by casual users without any problems. Test accounts retain core functionalities like Oculus TV, Oculus Browser, Air Link, and so on; however, they do not allow for any downloads or purchases from the Main Store. It’s an interesting workaround that’s quite flexible and easy to set up, but there’s no guarantee it will stay that way. Just like with original Oculus accounts, these test accounts can at some point be either phased out or require some sort of lengthy verification process. Even with all this ingenuity, there are still many VR enthusiasts that are not content with any of the methods described. That’s because all of them require some point of contact with the Facebook ecosystem. Techniques invented by Bastian require you to first set up your Quest, so then you can sideload tools to either disable telemetry or turn off the companion app. For those who already had Quest 2 for some time, this isn’t a problem, as we can assume these users have merged their accounts some time ago and are now just taking a step back. But for new users that only got their Quest 2, this means having to start by paring the device, which many want to avoid.

     Many find the two other methods also less than ideal and point out that since Oculus is now fully integrated into Facebook Reality Labs, it doesn’t represent a separate entity. That’s obviously true, but it’s also important to note that merged accounts operate under different terms and conditions than unmerged ones. Terms for merged accounts are essentially quite open-ended and vague; unmerged accounts, on the other hand, operate under old Oculus terms and conditions, while test accounts are meant to be used by groups of people and generally for development.

     Therefore, these various workarounds are mostly meant to constrain Facebook in what it’s allowed to do with its users data, how much of that data they can collect, and so on, rather than preventing Facebook from identifying who the user is. They offer various degrees of increased privacy, not anonymity which cannot really be attained on Quest 2 unless maybe with a full root — something that’s not very likely to happen given the complexities of Oculus OS and the fact that a full root would turn Quest into a barebones hardware device with no initial functionalities.

     So, for the time being, it seems we will continue to see this type of adversarial back and forth between the VR community and Oculus, where we have certain announcements or implementations that seem to forward Facebook’s XR vision but go against the wishes of the community, and then a corresponding backlash as a result. This backlash can mean negative posts, reviews, or videos but also means a bigger incentive to invent various workarounds. Or, as in the case of recent review-bombing, it not only resulted in Blaston developers making a u-turn but also made all the other developers aware that implementing Facebook ads in their titles will not go without repercussions. Facebook is a dominant player in the VR space, so they have the last word, but it creates a sort of interesting dynamic where they have to thread a little bit more lightly and balance out their strategic objectives so that they don’t hurt Quest sales and VR adoption.