In 17 years, Facebook has gone from a college social network to a potential gatekeeper for the world’s newest computing platforms: augmented and virtual reality. Its Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) division sells the Portal videophone and Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, and it’s behind an upcoming line of Ray-Ban smart glasses, with more advanced AR hardware in development.
Facebook is also building and funding VR software, sometimes in competition with smaller developers. Last year, it launched its own virtual social network called Horizon in beta. It’s also experimenting with a VR workspace system called “Infinite Office” that can blend the real and virtual world. Particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, these efforts could draw more people into working and socializing through VR.
At the same time, Facebook is navigating a privacy and moderation crisis. Its platform has been widely criticized for bringing online extremists together and allowing discriminatory targeted advertising or harmful misinformation. These problems will almost certainly follow the company into VR and AR, complicating already thorny questions about privacy and autonomy in these new spaces.
Facebook Reality Labs head Andrew “Boz” Bosworth called 2020 a “tremendous” year for VR, and in a blog post last week, he laid out plans to focus more on AR and Horizon in the coming year. I spoke to Bosworth over Zoom about how FRL will address present-day problems in futuristic tech.
There’s a pattern of social spaces launching for VR, then realizing there’s a really big audience outside headsets and launching on desktop or mobile. Do you see that path as viable for Horizon?
Yes, it’s definitely a possibility that we’ve considered. If you want to build a social product, you want to reach people wherever they are, and requiring that they have a headset that’s not free, when they probably already have some other connected device, that just cuts some people off from having access to participate. And that doesn’t feel good to any of us.
We’re going to start in VR because if you don’t get that core mechanic right, then the rest of it kind of doesn’t matter. There’s already a lot of great software that solves the job of 2D-to-2D feeling together; we’re doing one of them right now. So we really wanted to have a strong foundation of VR. One of the things that we’ve always talked about is how to make this cross-platform, how to make this something that people can use and participate in at whatever level they’re able to.
Facebook has talked about a system for letting people put apps on Oculus Quest that’s less exclusive than the Oculus Store. What’s the status on that?
I’m very excited about that direction. And the status on that is it is coming much sooner than people think.
One of the pain points for Oculus in the last year has been the switch to requiring Facebook accounts to use the headsets. If VR becomes something that you’re using for work, it seems like a Facebook login isn’t necessarily the best way to access that.
I think one thing that is a puzzle piece that you can put together with this is now, since we’ve talked about the Oculus and Facebook account linking, Facebook has talked more about account management overall. One of the areas of product focus for us is making it easier for people to manage all of their accounts. So Facebook Workplace accounts is a good example. It’s one of those pieces that I think when we look at Infinite Office, we’re targeting supporting that as one of the techniques that people can use to feel like, “Yeah, I can have my workplace Facebook account, and that’s what I’m going to use in certain contexts.”
And this is very consistent with how we want to approach this overall. We want people to have total control over their persona, right? If you want to be Batman in VR, you can definitely be Batman. We just want them to also be able to be Bruce Wayne if they should choose to. And so we’re trying to think of it that way — expanding the opportunity space from “Yep, you’re Batman, but you can only be Batman” into having a lot more control over your persona, your connections, and how you show up. That is the work that we’re looking toward as Infinite Office continues to develop internally.
That seems like kind of a reversal of the way Facebook has talked about having a single identity and a unified presence online.
I think the reality for us, especially in VR, is the ability to have a lot more control over your appearance — that’s not something that Facebook ever really dabbled with when you were dealing with just a profile. A lot of the problems at the time that Facebook was founded especially involved authenticity on the internet. You know, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog. Authenticity was a premium feature — that you really knew who this person was and could count on that.
Now we’ve actually gotten kind of full circle, where you can be embodied. Facebook never got to control how you showed up in a real interaction with somebody; that was never something that we got to control. Suddenly, you know, in VR, we are a broker of that. So we need to provide you the full richness of self-expression that you would have access to — actually, a richer set of self-expression than you would have in the real world. So, yeah, new media demands new consideration. I don’t think it’s inconsistent. I think it’s just an acknowledgment of what this medium is.
How much is Facebook Reality Labs’ work limited by internet connectivity issues? Something like Horizon becomes a lot more difficult when people don’t have steady, fast internet access, and the pandemic has obviously thrown those gaps into relief.
I believe there’s two parts to this. I’m always impressed with what we can do locally. I think no company has done more than Facebook in terms of shrinking artificial intelligences down and running them locally on device — for example, Portal, which does all its face detection and camera direction locally on device. And that is a huge opportunity that allows these devices to be useful even when they’re not connected in a lot of contexts.
The second thing is certainly, you’re right. The really rich stuff that we’re imagining for Horizon might require robust internet connection. Obviously, I hope that not just private companies, but governments around the world realize how much internet connectivity and access to information is increasingly a human right that we need to support. But even if in the case where you have limited internet access, again, we’re seeing tremendous luck with artificial intelligences improving the experience people can have.
Avatars require a lot less bits to express the richness of facial expression than [Zoom] does. Right? This is a very high-bandwidth connection. We can actually reduce that to a smaller number of pixels animating my face and send those. And you can still have, not a 100 percent accurate understanding of my expressions, but like a 95 percent accurate understanding and a dramatically lower bandwidth cost. So there are technologies here that actually stand to benefit. Moving toward avatars could actually help us connect even through limited or low-bandwidth connections.
You’ve talked about how privacy and security concerns translate to Facebook Reality Labs’ work. What are you specifically doing to make sure that a lot of the problems that have cropped up on Facebook in the last year involving moderation don’t happen in something like Horizon?
I really want to separate out content moderation from privacy, because they’re very different issues. Content moderation is an issue that’s going to be with us forever. It’s been with us. It’s always been battles over who got to be editors and who got to be the censors. That’s a human issue that arose, you know, as soon as the printing press did. Arguably before that.
On the privacy front, I feel lucky. I feel like we’re founding a new set of media at the current height of privacy debate, not just in this country, but in the world. We can have these conversations out in the open. We’re in a golden age for experts on privacy and the trade-offs around it, and we’re trying to take advantage of all that conversation that’s already happening, and put these use cases out into the world so people can debate them.
What are the business models after that? It seems like as long as Facebook Reality Labs AR and VR use the Facebook model of advertising, there are going to be privacy trade-offs at some point.
You know, very much in a technology tradition, we’re not really focused on business model. You kind of assume that if you build a great and useful thing, that you’ll find a way to make money on it.
I believe in [targeted] advertising. I think it makes the experience that people have in the world a lot better rather than un-targeted advertising. I think it’s hugely important for small businesses. I think it’s hugely important for maximizing the use of human capital. That’s a debate that is a distant debate for augmented reality and virtual reality. It’s not a near-term debate.
And so I have the great luxury of not worrying about it. I’ve got enough real problems right in front of it to go tackle before I worry about the business model. And so we’ve got to build it before I can think too much about that. And I’m confident if we do, there’ll be lots of opportunities.
For a more near-term problem, people have compared Horizon to Facebook Groups. What happens when a group like QAnon starts organizing on Horizon? How do you find them and decide what to do with them while threading the needle of not making it seem like you’re being creepy and surveilling everyone all the time?
I don’t think there’s one answer to that, and there’s certainly not any answer that’s going to satisfy all parties. We know that from our experience on Facebook. And so I think on content moderation issues, you can expect us to really lean heavily on Facebook, which has done the lifting of talking to governments, talking to experts, and is constantly revising its policies as the facts on the ground change.
I don’t think you ever expect you’re going to have one stance, because as soon as you take a stance, bad actors are going to find little loopholes. It’s never going to end. There isn’t going to be one solution. So I think people should expect it to be like any digital space and, frankly, any physical space going back in history. You’ve got to continue to evolve what the regulations are as you observe behavior.