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This article was published on June 17, 2021

Facebook’s ‘immersive’ VR ads are the capitalist hell no one asked for

May your eyeballs scream in terror

Facebook’s ‘immersive’ VR ads are the capitalist hell no one asked for
Thomas Macaulay
Story by

Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

VR can provide an immersive escape from the mundane. But there’s one thing it won’t let you escape from for much longer: advertising.

Facebook announced on Wednesday that it will soon start testing ads inside Oculus headsets — despite the VR brand’s founder once promising that it would never happen.

“We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive,” pledged Oculus creator Palmer Lucky, shortly after Facebook bought his firm in 2017.

That always sounded optimistic, given the social network gets around 97% of its revenue from ads. Seven years later, the skeptics have been proven correct.

[Read: Why entrepreneurship in emerging markets matters]

Facebook will first test the ads in dueling shooter game Blaston and two other unnamed apps. The company said it will incorporate feedback from developers and the community before providing more details on when Oculus ads may become more broadly available.

Credit: Facebook
Facebook says VR ads could help developers build businesses.

It sounds like a science fiction nightmare brought to (virtual) reality. In my mind, the scheme evokes memories of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One, which depicts corporations trying to control a VR simulation by filling it with intrusive online ads.

The ads could also prove horrifyingly effective. It’s hard to look away when you’re strapped into a headset, and research suggests VR can increase empathy and engagement.

Those curvaceous Coca-Cola bottles could look more irresistible than ever. Politicians, conspiracy theorists, and con artists must be rubbing their grubby mitts.

Facebook has tried to mitigate the concerns by highlighting the company’s privacy policies and user controls. Oculus users can hide specific ads or those from individual advertisers. They can also access more detailed Ad Preferences via the “Why am I seeing this ad?” interface.

“While testing ads in Oculus apps, Facebook will get new information like whether you interacted with an ad and if so, how — for example, if you clicked on the ad for more information or if you hid the ad,” said Facebook. “Outside of that, this test doesn’t change how your Oculus data is processed or how it informs ads.”

The company hopes the ads will create new revenue streams for virtual reality. But they could also push potential customers away.

VR still hasn’t truly taken off yet, and Facebook is already sullying the tech’s escapist appeal.

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