Virtual Panorama

What if someone were to make a scale 3D-model of your city, in virtual reality? What if they were to invite certain people to interact with that model, adding a layer of perception that is only available to some? What if they sold ad space in there? The banners in your metro car replaced by other advertisers’ banners in the virtual version of that same metro car?

You guessed it, this is not one blogger’s pipedream, but the next moonshot from Silicon Valley: Facebook’s “Project Aria”. As of September, a number of Facebook employees wear a particular set of spectacles which record what they see, creating a virtual 3d-model. Unlike Google Glass, the point is not to deliver services to the wearer (at least not at this stage), but to map out the world. To create a model of the world that a machine can understand. Google Streetview on steroids. If the resolution of GPS-satellites is maybe one meter, and Google Streetview maybe one decimeter, Project Aria could be another order of magnitude higher resolution.

Once someone has that data, the opportunities are huge: self-driving cars? No need to train them in real traffic, run the simulation in the virtual city. Want to train an AI on mobility patterns? The data is there. Who could compete with that, short of collecting a similar data set? What a competitive advantage for Facebook.

Next, how about pivoting the tech, so that the wearers can also receive information? This is where the ad space in the metro cars come in. Plus scores of other potential services. Unlike previous failed attempts (yes, looking at you Google Glass), the service provider understands the wearer’s context because they have built a scale model of the world.

Virtual reality is at the moment more like virtual potential. There are some cool virtual reality games, some business applications and other promising ideas. But the break-through is yet to come. The biggest bottleneck is building the market, a critical mass of devices. Much like the smartphone break-through a decade ago, a good device launched by a company that understands the market could make it happen in a short time. Too soon to say that Oculus Quest 2 will be to VR what Iphone was to smartphones, but it is no coincidence that the company behind it is… Facebook. In August, Facebook caused an outrage among Oculus users when it announced that a Facebook account will be needed for future headsets.

This raises many questions: who will be able to compete with Facebook for the virtual space? Where does this put Europe – once again stuck between the rock that is the United States and the hard place that is China? Privacy, Schrems, Data Shield… who will own the VR-data and what are the consequences? Who will write the rules for the virtual world?

Also, this brings back to life a classic intellectual property battle: remember the panorama-debate? The light show on the Eiffel tower has artistic quality and is there for protected by intellectual property rules. Permission needed for broadcasts or recording for commercial purposes et cetera. Most people say “whatever” (this writer saw it more as a proxy for other intellectual property battles). But what about the virtual metro car and the banner ads? Or what about virtual banner ads on… let’s say La Louvre? Is that the exclusive domain of the provider of VR-services? Perhaps the panorama-debate was ahead of its time.