It would be an understatement to call me “deeply conflicted” because of Facebook’s upcoming Oculus Quest 2 standalone VR headset. My long but imperfect memory can’t recall any device so compelling of such a seriously troubled company – one that hopes to attract new customers, even as employees keep jumping over crises of conscience. This polarized situation of a polarizing company makes the launch of Quest 2 one of the biggest tech tragedies of 2020, although I usually want one to be the first.
Facebook’s corporate violations have been hard to ignore for years. Whether you think it actively participated in historically massive misinformation, disinformation, and polarization campaigns, or was just a well-paid innovator who was all too willing to look the other way when bad things happened, the social Media giant is investigating, suing and at least found guilty of public opinion in court. Despite Facebook’s promise to “bring the world closer together,” my own friend and family lists have been destroyed by Facebook’s insane algorithms and business practices. I am proud – not happy – to have closed my Facebook account and to leave this network.
On the other hand, there is Oculus. Facebook acquired Oculus when its first product, the Rift VR headset, was still in development, and gave the startup access to cash, engineering, and manufacturing scale, which no doubt improved its prospects. Yes, some of that money indirectly funded an Oculus founder’s “Clinton Prison” campaign during the 2016 election season, which sparked public outcry, but the vast majority of Facebook’s money went directly to creating groundbreaking mixed reality products.
Image credit: Oculus VR
To be clear, I think Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in Oculus was brilliant, and as I (and others) have said, neither Oculus nor the VR industry would be what they are today without him. I’ll go further and find that I personally like (and respect their professionalism) the Oculus reps I’ve met and worked with over the years. Whether it’s Oculus or Facebook Reality Labs, the company is home to some exceptionally bright people who do work that benefits humanity. There may not be a better place for them to do this work today.
Even so, I don’t trust Facebook as a company, and for some time now I’ve felt that VR has become too important to trust Facebook. Regardless of the assurances made before or during the acquisition, the likelihood of Oculus remaining completely independent was slim, and every year the Oculus brand falls more and more in the shadow of Facebook. Recent moves – including renaming Oculus Connect to Facebook Connect – strongly suggest that the Oculus brand will no longer be available in about 10 years. If the word “Facebook” hadn’t been so controversial right now, Oculus Quest 2 might have shipped under a completely different name this year.
Assuming you believe Facebook is a good actor who makes big mistakes, and not a bad actor who can get away with as much as possible – this debate is still raging – the company’s biggest mistake would be its inability to read a room and find the right course. really screw up after something. Sixteen years after its inception, Facebook is still acting like a kid who knocks over a giant aquarium, puts a fish in a bowl, and asks, “We are good?” After doing serious damage, it rarely apologizes, gives the scope of its shortcomings or does nowhere near enough to make up for the damage. Aside from changing the motto, it still moves fast and breaks things, then shakes off the consequences with no real remorse.
(Some writers have equated Facebook with the Mafia, suggesting that it is an inherently poor organization that puts on a nice show for the general public. Obviously, these critics have never owned a small business that shook Yelp has been.)
Instead of accepting that its brand has gone toxic, Facebook – in another of its questionable moves into reading rooms – has tried to change public perception by becoming even bolder. If you’ve forgotten who owns Oculus, Instagram, or WhatsApp, guess what: the apps will now launch with the words “From Facebook” to remind you that Facebook isn’t just a problematic social network. And instead of shying away from the public spotlight, Zuckerberg appears in person at hearings in Congress and opens events like Facebook Connect, where he proudly presents everything important himself. His message is essentially to accept Facebook, warts and everything because it does more good than harm.
After watching Facebook turn former friends into militantly polarized antagonists, I am troubled by the idea of taking the good with the bad here because the good is great and the bad is terrible. My brain keeps returning to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dystopian science fiction film The Running Man, in which ubiquitous television network ICS had a theme song entitled “We Bring You Joy, We Bring You Strife”.
As my colleague Dean Takahashi notes, Oculus Quest 2 ranks high on the joy scale. Facebook has magically shipped a standalone VR headset for $ 299 that is roughly twice as impressive as the $ 399 high-usable model it replaces. It’s also lighter, and its deluxe version for $ 399 has double the storage capacity of the previous $ 499 Quest. The state-of-the-art Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chipset inside is far more future-proof today than the aged Snapdragon 835 when Quest 1 shipped less than a year and a half ago. Without the Facebook factor, buying Quest 2 would be a breeze.
Photo credit: Marla Takahashi
Unfortunately, Facebook has offset all the positives of Quest 2 with a new requirement: If you want to use the headset, you need a Facebook account. The controversial news about Oculus accounts being phased out was released a month ago, along with the not-so-subtle detail that Facebook accounts will have to use all new Oculus products in the future. This means that any barrier between Oculus users and Facebook’s massive, dangerous computing operation will be gone. This is particularly problematic as mixed reality devices can and will capture the most personal data ever cultivated by computer users.
People freaked out last month when the Facebook account request was announced and they haven’t calmed down much since then. Just yesterday our friends at UploadVR said that the requirement of a Facebook account was a headline-worthy restriction for an otherwise positive review of Quest 2, while other publications were vocalized even more by the “Facebookening”. And that’s not just media-related fear; Discussion forums and Twitter quickly flared up with similar concerns that I would describe as largely, if not entirely, justified given Facebook’s track record.
Despite multiple questions about the original Quest, I bought it myself for ongoing coverage purposes and was impressed with many of the free software upgrades that Oculus offered throughout its life. As Dean said in his hands-on tutorial, I’ve used Quest more than any other VR headset – and I’ve had a lot of them – and have been actively looking forward to a new Quest for months. After the new Facebook account policy was announced, I sold my Quest and I have no intention of buying the Quest 2 for now, as much as I would like to use it.
It may seem extreme – even pointless – to say that I don’t want to add another Facebook account to the company’s billions of users. I also acknowledge that Quest 2’s value for money guarantees even better business and consumer adoption than the original Quest. For professional reasons, I may have no choice but to use Quest 2, even if it does get my nose pinched.
But if silence is complicit, I can’t comfortably say nothing when the stakes are so high. Facebook has the potential to change the world with Oculus Quest 2 and its successors, just as it does with its own network. The changes could be as terrifying as what happened on Facebook to bigots, scammers and liars, or as compelling as the photos and videos people share on Instagram every day. Rather than berating Facebook for what it did, I sincerely hope the company can get the quick and hard twist it so desperately needs at this point, as I – and many others – are only considering a change of this magnitude can accept Quest 2 with a clear conscience and an open wallet.
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