Nearly four years ago, Facebook paid roughly $2 billion to acquire the virtual reality company Oculus, yet since then, Oculus has continued operating as a formal, separate entity. All of the shared companies’ VR hardware and software have been sold and marketed under the “Oculus” brand, though sometimes with a “from Facebook” disclaimer.
That’s still the case, but Monday marked the first notable divergence from this trend. That’s when Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash announced a pretty significant pivot. “Oculus Research has a new name—starting today, we will be known as Facebook Reality Labs (FRL),” he wrote (using Facebook, no less).
His announcement immediately assured readers that “our focus on the future hasn’t changed.” Abrash used the post to point out that FRL had already been “helping Oculus and all of Facebook create trailblazing AR [augmented reality] and VR experiences, from what’s most affordable to leading edge.” He then described a future in which mixed-reality technologies will usher in “the second great wave of human-oriented computing.” Abrash did not lean into his division’s new name and describe any upcoming products as “FR” or “Facebook Reality” experiences.
The name change very well could have come last week during Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference (which included its fair share of Oculus news). It’s unclear why the companies chose to wait a week. Perhaps either side was worried about easy comparisons to Facebook’s handling of private customer data, what with the Cambridge Analytica scandal still resonating among users—but by that logic, Facebook wouldn’t have unveiled a data-hungry FB dating and matchmaking app, and yet here we are.
It’s no surprise or mystery that Facebook would have a stake in Oculus’s advances in AR and VR technology. In October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described a mission of getting “a billion people” into VR, and months before that, Facebook showed off “augmented” experiences in which real-world locations could be viewed through a phone to reveal location-specific information like menu recommendations and friends’ graffiti tags. Still, the group that was Oculus Research has operated in a cloud of secrecy since its formation, and rumors have flown about research projects that don’t seemingly tie directly to VR or AR products—particularly, according to Ars sources, about how people listen to and perceive various sounds. (You can see some articles about FBR’s sound research at the Oculus Developer Blog.)
Today’s name change is likely the first step in blurring the lines between the social-media network and its virtual-interface arm as Facebook comes up with more ways to deliver both products at the same time. Adoption of bulky, PC-tethered headsets will never be enough to satisfy Zuckerberg’s billion-in-VR goal. While the lower-priced Oculus Go (and future wireless prototypes) may push that needle, the newly named Facebook Reality Labs will likely come up with ways to push VR even further—and demand more questions about what data the company requires.
Facebook is only a week out from demanding inexplicable GPS access from every single one of its Oculus Go customers, after all.