28 September 2020


'Oculus imaginaries: the promises and perils of Facebook’s virtual reality' by Ben Egliston and Marcus Carter in (2020) New Media and Society comments 

This article explores the Oculus suite of virtual reality (VR) technologies, with a specific focus on the period following from the company’s 2014 acquisition by Facebook. Through a close reading of promotional material, we first describe and analyse the ‘Oculus imaginary’ – the narrative produced by Facebook about the Oculus as integrated into and enhancing the experience of Facebook’s wider suite of social software. The purpose of this narrative, we suggest, is to construct and ‘sell’ a Facebook-specific vision of VR’s potentials – one that is appealing both to end-users and platform complementors – and moreover, a vision that appears to be conducive to Facebook’s current methods for accumulating profit and power. Following on, we develop via a study of YouTube user comments posted on promotional videos for the Oculus, an anticipatory account of how the Oculus imaginary is perceived to relate to the lives and values of everyday individuals 

 The authors state 

This article explores Virtual Reality (VR) as an emerging and imagined technology, less instantiated in a clear and concrete trajectory of technological innovation and evolution, but one of promissory discourse (Ryan, 2015: 35). Often framed as a “transcendent technology of the near future” (Evans, 2019: 29), tech reportage, industry spokespeople, and academia frequently situate VR in terms of its affordance of immersion, solutionism and empathy. Shifting direction, we home in on one of the medium’s most recent and significant, yet underexamined narratives: the 2014 acquisition of American VR start-up Oculus, and its subsequent imagination, by Facebook. Despite Oculus’ initial framing of VR’s potential in gaming, we find Facebook’s aim with Oculus is to integrate VR features into its suite of social software via Facebook’s ‘Reality Labs’ (FRL) development program. 

Despite the high-profile nature of this acquisition, one anticipated to have significance for both the maturation of VR and for the growth of Facebook’s platform empire (Helmond et al., 2019), we lack sustained, empirically informed and critical writing on 1) how Facebook imagines its VR future, and 2) the anticipated impacts of a Facebook-backed VR. To develop a critical response to this still nascent technology, we believe an anticipatory awareness of Facebook’s VR future is an urgent one. To do so, this article has two main objectives. Firstly, we examine what we refer to as the ‘Oculus imaginary’: how Facebook envisages the Oculus as integrated into its wider suite of social software. What are the dominant corporate narratives articulated by Facebook? What is promised and how is it envisaged? What gets left out in Facebook’s framing of VR’s possibilities? To answer such questions, we proceed with an analysis of Facebook’s self-presentation of VR at the developer conference (‘devcon’) Oculus Connect in 2018 and 2019, finding conceptual and methodological basis for this in a range of recent studies of the imaginaries of emerging technologies (Beer, 2017; Sadowski and Bendor, 2019), understanding the spread of technology in society not just in terms of large technological developments, acquisitions and so on, but rather shifts in the discourse about technology. Beyond research on the imaginaries of technologies more broadly, this research is also motivated by existing work focused on Facebook’s construction of a public facing image, and how this discursive process accrues benefits to the company (see Hoffmann et al., 2018; Rider and Murakami Wood, 2019). 

Our analysis highlights how VR is increasingly cast as a new frontier for social media. Facebook focuses on how the Oculus provides the capacity to connect end-users, affording intimacy and affectivity, through both the affordances of the Oculus itself and the Oculus’ integration into Facebook’s other software (e.g. Facebook, Messenger). In doing so, Facebook frames the Oculus as taking on a central role in everyday life. Here, we also address what’s (strategically) left out of the Oculus imaginary – namely, any meaningful engagement with issues of data extraction and accumulation. 

Secondly, we advance an anticipatory awareness of what Facebook’s imagined VR future might look like and feel like. We do so by exploring how individuals articulate values in relation to Facebook’s Oculus imaginary. To develop this anticipatory account of the implications of Facebook’s VR imaginary, we follow Kudina and Verbeek’s (2019) conceptual and methodological approach for studying how emerging technologies mediate human values. Following Kudina and Verbeek’s suggestions, to study how people articulate values in relation to the anticipated mediating roles of emerging technology on their daily lives and practices, we looked at the comments posted by viewers on 2 promotional YouTube videos for Oculus hardware and software – a 2019 trailer for Facebook’s social software ‘Horizon’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s 2019 Oculus Connect keynote. 

Our findings highlight areas of conflict between the Oculus imaginary and the ethics and values of users. We focus in particular on how users perceived the threat of data extraction and control to be a potential outcome of Facebook’s VR future, as well as a discussion of platform moderation and the cultural politics of the VR medium, with questions about who uses VR and why. 

Through this two-pronged approach, we present the first sustained analysis of how the Oculus suite of VR technologies are currently imagined (and how these imaginaries are embraced or contested by everyday individuals), arguing that they are positioned as an extension of Facebook’s existing software and as an apparatus of Facebook’s platform empire. In this way, we believe this research bears relevance to existing work on the discursive formation of the VR medium (e.g. Chesher, 1994; Evans, 2018), and more specifically, to studies of the corporate framing of Oculus’ VR (see Foxman, 2018; Golding, 2019; Nagy and Turner, 2019). Further, such critical writing is especially germane in the context of recent scholarship on the politics of platforms (e.g. Srnicek, 2017), the ethical implications of emerging VR technologies (Carter & Egliston, 2020), and wider public awareness of Facebook’s unscrupulous business practices.