Cameras inside the device that track eye and face movements can make an avatar’s expressions more realistic, but they raise new privacy questions.
In November 2021, Facebook announced it would delete face recognition data extracted from images of more than 1 billion people and stop offering to automatically tag people in photos and videos. Luke Stark, an assistant professor at Western University, in Canada, told WIRED at the time that he considered the policy change a PR tactic because the company’s VR push would likely lead to the expanded collection of physiological data and raise new privacy concerns.
This week, Stark’s prediction proved right. Meta, as the company that built Facebook is now called, introduced its latest VR headset, the Quest Pro. The new model adds a set of five inward-facing cameras that watch a person’s face to track eye movements and facial expressions, allowing an avatar to reflect their expressions, smiling, winking, or raising an eyebrow in real time. The headset also has five exterior cameras that will in the future help give avatars legs that copy a person’s movements in the real world.
After Meta’s presentation, Stark said the outcome was predictable. And he suspects that the default “off” setting for face tracking won’t last long. “It’s been clear for some years that animated avatars are acting as privacy loss leaders,” he said. “This data is far more granular and far more personal than an image of a face in the photograph.”
At the event announcing the new headset, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, described the intimate new data collection as a necessary part of his vision for virtual reality. “When we communicate, all our nonverbal expressions and gestures are often even more important than what we say, and the way we connect virtually needs to reflect that too,” he said.