If you follow what's happening in the world of spacial computing you'll see it reached the point of absurdity. There's no augmented or virtual reality, everything became metaverse. In most cases these are blatant and obvious attempts to cash in on current trends but there are a lot of genuine use cases. And that's where Facebook (now conveniently rebranding itself as "Meta") is hoping to cash in big.
Ever since Facebook’s acquisition in 2014 VR community keeps bringing up various grievances and fears and this latest move with Facebook changing its name is similarly looked upon with suspicion. To make long story short Oculus (now Metas) is already operating an ecosystem where Meta 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, no wonder that the announcement from Andrew Bozworth that Oculus will now start putting ads inside VR was supposed to be as low key as possible.
Proposed VR ad implementation
In a now deleted Tweet Bozworth mentioned "We want to help developers generate revenue" and that they are "starting a small test of in-headset ads with a few developers" in the coming weeks. As restrained as this tweet sounds it immediately got picked up by users, retweeted, ratio'ed and amplified causing 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 were 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).
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. Bastian is one of such pioneers. Also known as Basti564, he is the author of an app called Oculess. His app allows users to disable telemetry: a protocol responsible for collecting and sending all the data to Meta servers.
Some users turn to 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 happy. That’s because 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.
Outside of the Meta ecosystem there's a different project brewing, one that leverages WebXR and OpenXR. It's called - Zesty and the way it works is, it connects WebXR creators with potential advertisers. Advertisers can rent ad space in bulk, that will then be displayed across many different WebXR apps and websites. For now WebXR remains quite niche but It's an interesting concept that I will try to explore in another article.
So, for the time being, it seems we will continue to see this type of adversarial back and forth between the VR community and Meta, 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. Meta 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.