Remember how Oculus was NEVER going to target users with ads? Well, that promise wasn’t going to last forever with the virtual reality headset maker’s current owner, Facebook. “Oculus continues to operate independently! We are going to remain as indie/developer/enthusiast-friendly as we have always been, if not more so. We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive,” said Oculus founder Palmer Luckey 7 years ago. Fast forward to today: the testing of in-headset VR ads has just commenced.
VR ads are Facebook’s new revenue stream
On the Oculus blog, the company claims the motive behind its decision is to “bring more people into VR, advance the consumer experience, and make progress on our longer-term augmented reality initiatives“. To translate: it’s an intriguing new source of ad revenue that should help Facebook finally turn VR mainstream. The company acknowledges that directly, promising to explore new ways for game developers to generate money and making sure they’re “creating a self-sustaining platform”. For now, it’s not a big deal. Only a few apps will be part of the test, and the ad availability will continue slowly growing step by step.
Facebook is also addressing concerns from the very beginning and promises to follow its advertising principles. That means users can hide individual ads and determine why they were shown a particular one, similarly to the experience of scrolling through Facebook. As for privacy, the tech giant promises not to use information stored locally on the headsets and claims that no chats or voice interactions will be used to tailor ads. The movement data of each player should not be taken into account either.
The ad dystopia
The announcement ends with cryptic “more to come”, acknowledging that this form of advertising is still in its early days. Facebook promises to invest in unobtrusive ads, as well as explore new ad formats tailored uniquely to VR. “A more profitable content ecosystem is a critical step on the path to consumer VR becoming truly mainstream. And that’s something we think is worth celebrating,” the company concludes. Take that as you will: on the one hand, VR’s full potential is far from unleashed; on another… the Ready Player One scenario.
If you’ve seen Spielberg’s film, you’ve probably planned an elaborate fantasy of your virtual avatar’s life at some point. That’s how immersive and captivating the VR world OASIS was. It’s an escapist dreamland where everything is possible, after all. And you can be damn sure that various versions of it are coming. The only question is whether the ads will pop up as aggressively in your visual fields as in the OASIS, exploiting the fact that there’s nowhere to run if you don’t want to unplug from VR.
And so if regulations don’t reflect the new reality, we might end up in the a brand new visual pollution era. Speaking of which: let’s hope this eerily realistic short film remains fiction.