Aurich Lawson / Facebook
Our "Facebookening of Oculus" series continues today with the announcement of the Facebook Connect conference as a free live streaming event on September 16. You may recall years of "Oculus Connect" conferences that focused on the company's efforts in virtual reality and other "mixed reality" media. This conference is dead. It is now Facebook Connect.
In an announcement on Tuesday, Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth cited the company's broader product portfolio as a reason to expand the definition of its conference beyond Oculus. However, to back up that claim, he cited just two Facebook products: Spark AR, the toolset for camera software that identifies faces and adds goofy effects and filters, and Portal, the company's webcam chat hardware platform. After attending many Oculus Connect conferences, I can safely say that none of these product lines received much attention (and that attending VR-keen developers also showed no interest in them).
Now it's FRL, soon it's FBOS?
Additionally, Facebook took Tuesday's announcement as an opportunity to rename its entire Oculus VR department: Facebook Reality Labs. This name may sound familiar as it was given to a number of Skunkworks teams who were working on experimental VR-like features and hardware (including years of focusing on 3D spatial audio in their Seattle office).
Facebook is not afraid to explain why it is renaming everything: bringing together and combining its different entities in order to "build the next computer platform so that people feel present even when we are apart". That certainly sounds like a bold admission of the so-called "Facebook operating system", about which I keep hearing rumors, with VR, mixed reality and smartphone cameras in the center. Facebook has been pointing out for months that mixed computing systems are being combined in the workplace, which the company summarized as of today in a new post from Facebook Reality Labs.
While Facebook paid $ 2 billion to acquire Oculus in 2014, that money was clearly spent more on the underlying VR technology than on the name, and it remains to be seen whether any of the company's future VR headsets the trademark "Oculus" withdrawn is good. (In today's FRL announcement, "Oculus" is cited several times as a hardware line.)
"Similar to the recent rebranding of Facebook, our focus is on clarity. We visually identify ourselves as part of Facebook and look to the future of the next human-centered computing platform," Bosworth wrote in today's announcement. But I would argue that this jumble of seemingly unrelated products – VR headsets, webcam chat platforms, funny face filters, and the smorgasbord of social media content that is your average Facebook feed – is just for that purpose to cover up what Facebook is trying to sell to consumers. Previously, it was possible to purchase an Oculus headset, then purchase, download, and install preferred VR software (or even hook it up to more open retail platforms like SteamVR and Windows Mixed Reality).
As we recently learned, that kind of "any software you want" freedom for Oculus hardware may no longer be on the cards as Facebook will soon be mandating Facebook logins for all brand new hardware – and I was already predicting it This new hardware will be a centerpiece of the company's next major VR event (which we now know will be on September 16). It remains to be seen whether new hardware will include other Facebook-specific mandates such as an integrated suite of Facebook-connected social rooms and games. If so, they would effectively harass other social and gaming software partners. One could argue that apps like Rec Room and VRChat helped Oculus get where it is today by providing the kind of social space that Facebook and Oculus have repeatedly failed to maintain. (One of his biggest attempts at the incomplete Facebook Spaces lasted barely two years before it was canceled in favor of another app in development, Facebook Horizons.)
All of this continues to stink in ways I despised last week:
Oculus already offers links to Facebook features, which is its responsibility. However, for now, users have a choice. Facebook wants to take away that choice.
For these reasons, just advocating that people not buy Oculus products is not good enough. Mandatory Facebook accounts on any computing device, VR or otherwise, have to go.