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Facebook bets on a tech zombie

August 19, 2021, 6:38 PM UTC

Nobody wants to live in the uncanny valley — the idea that digital representations of people will always feel eerily off, no matter how lifelike they are.

And yet, here we are in 2021, and the world’s sixth-largest company is trying to get its users to spend more time in the uncanny valley than ever. 

I’m talking about Facebook’s introduction today of a virtual reality service for business meetings. CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the new service, called Horizon Workrooms, this way: “A virtual reality app that lets you and your coworkers feel like you’re sitting around a table in a conference room.” 

Translation: Users will wear virtual reality headsets to make it seem like they’re sitting with their colleagues — or, rather, their cartoon-like avatars.

The new service is the most recent effort by Facebook to show that its $2 billion purchase of VR headset maker Oculus in 2014 wasn’t money for nothing. Facebook doesn’t disclose sales figures for that business unit, but its devices have failed to reach the kind of ubiquity you’d expect from such a large acquisition.

It also adds to Facebook’s ever-expanding lineup of products that already includes social media, e-commerce, messaging, and digital marketing. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Federal Trade Commission refiled its antitrust lawsuit against Facebook the same morning as the VR announcement. But then again, maybe not. 

Despite the general public indifference to virtual reality, it has gained some modest traction in a few niches, including video gaming and with the military for training. But otherwise, VR just feels like a relic of a bygone era, something that didn’t catch on for a reason. And unlike, say, vinyl records, it doesn’t have a nostalgic or purely analog feel to it.

Still, there is something comforting about using VR for bland business meetings. Tech is always about the shiny thing—the possibility, the future that will be slightly better than the present. An announcement like this is impressive in its capitulation to the realities of life, that maybe the best use of far-out technology is to apply it to the mundane.

But is VR the best way to make business meetings more tolerable? We already have Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Apple’s FaceTime, Facebook’s WhatsApp, Telegram, and Asana — not to mention all the other niche collaborative programs that have cropped up in the last few years. 

The above are all pretty easy to install. Most are free or have free tiers. The video apps also let you see the nuances of your coworker’s expressions during meetings— the kind of information that an avatar, no matter how advanced, is unlikely to replicate.

Moreover, Oculus headsets cost hundreds of dollars a pop. So you’d be paying for…what, exactly?

Kevin T. Dugan
@KevinTDugan

NEWSWORTHY

Message doesn't scan. More than 90 policy groups wrote a letter challenging Apple's plans to scan messages in an effort to protect children from sexual content. The groups objected on grounds that the technology could be used for other nefarious purposes by governments, and creates a backdoor for hacks. Apple has pushed back against the criticism. 

Voice data clash. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, including Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican John Thune, are challenging TikTok's plans to collect voice and biometric data of its users. The letter asks for clarification around the scope of the data collected and whether it includes users under 18. TikTok in 2019 paid a fine for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. 

Meme stock slump. Shares of Robinhood fell about 9% on Thursday on concerns that users were abandoning the no-fee brokerage app. Quarterly filings showed that Dogecoin trading made more than 60% of its total crypto trades during the last three-month period. 

Keeps growing and growing. Power capacity for batteries surged by the most ever in 2020 — a crucial component of the power grid as the US beefs up its reliance on renewable energies. The batteries store energy from utilities like solar panels, which produce less energy depending on the weather, so there isn't an interruption in power. 

Scoot's honor. Scooter company Bird only lost $43 million last quarter, about $7 million less than its year-ago losses, the company reported Thursday. The loss comes as the company started operating in more than 50 new cities since June. The company plans to go public later this year through a special purpose acquisition company that would value Bird at $2.3 billion. 

Content Warning. Bloomberg reports that OnlyFans will ban sexually explicit conduct on its platform, though it will continue to allow users to post nude photos. The report comes just days after the video company announced that it was launching a safe-for-work version. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

YouTube, for morals. Dhar Mann is a YouTuber. This isn't his first career — he co-founded a medical marijuana company, but that dissolved and he later pleaded "no contest" to five counts of fraud. Now, though, he makes videos that teach children about morality, and has grown immensely popular. 

I mention Mann's past not to shame the guy. I'm a huge believer in second, and third chances, and beyond. And YouTube, for all its vastness, couldn't be hurt by a guy talking about right and wrong. 

But aiming for the bullseye isn't the same as hitting it, as this profile suggests. It's a weird story about jacking the algorithm to teach morality, but the stories themselves don't really seem to have even the nuance of Aesop's fables. But then again, he could keep trying. 

Snippets, from the New York Times

His “focus on universal truths,” he believes, is what has allowed him “to build such a massive audience.”

But he also makes choices that he knows will pay off. “I’m not disconnected from the realities of social algorithms,” he said. “If, for instance, a thumbnail has somebody crying or somebody overly expressive, or zooms into a face, it’s going to do better.”

...

Mr. Mann’s moral philosophy can at times feel thin and absolutist. A common narrative arc involves a bully mocking the protagonist for being poor or having acne; then a twist of fate strikes the bully with poverty or pimples. The videos often imply that having any kind of social problem is a form of shameful karmic punishment.

Still, the size of his audience suggests that Mr. Mann is tapping into something millions of people find compelling. In trying times — say, a pandemic with no end in sight paired with devastating wildfires on several continents and a bleak climate outlook — people want to see villains reformed and lessons delivered. No ambiguity, no debates. Everything turns out just right.

 

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

You can’t have innovation without simulation, says Ansys CFO by Sheryl Estrada

The Delta variant is throwing a wrench in back-to-school plans across the U.S. by Nic Querolo and Bloomberg

Buckle up, investors. Stocks, crypto, commodities tumble on taper fears by Bernhard Warner

Big brewers toast the re-opening of bars as sales recover—but your next round may cost you by Adrian Croft

Alibaba shares hit a record low in Hong Kong amid a broader China tech selloff by Bloomberg

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BEFORE YOU GO

The case for cargos. A couple years ago, I bet a friend $20 that pleated men's pants would never, ever come back in style. They were so dorky. A cut I associated with grandfathers. Who needed it? Well, I was wrong. (I think my friend forgot about the bet, so, uh, James, let me know your Venmo?) 

Everything that was deeply unfashionable has come roaring back, including the bane of men's fashion: cargo pants. But why now? There is the case for utility, which is more urgent now than ever. But it's not like people weren't walking around the big bulky phones in 2016. 

I think there's something going on in the culture right now that's reacting against a decade-plus of the primacy of sleek design. Back when I used to go into restaurants, it was overwhelming how many of them had smooth edges and curves, like they were all vying to look like my iPhone's home screen. But no more. Minimalism for everything is boring. Maybe it's because of the pandemic, but everything is a little ramshackle. Teens are wearing baggy clothes in colors that clash. Things that are "ugly" are being reconsidered, instead of being rejected out of hand. And maybe that means you won't have to jam everything into your jeans pockets anymore, too. 

 

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