This week Meta revealed the Meta Quest Pro, a new virtual reality headset that costs about as much as a pre-inflation mortgage payment. It’s a sleek device, with upgraded hardware, advanced features—and cameras that point inward to track your eyes and face.
Eye tracking data could be used “in order to understand whether people engage with an advertisement or not,” said Meta’s head of global affair Nick Clegg in an interview with the Financial Times. (Meta didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.)
Whether you’re resigned to targeted ads or not, this technology takes data collection to a place we’ve never seen. The Quest Pro isn’t just going to inform Meta about what you say you’re interested in, tracking your eyes and face will give the company unprecedented insight about your emotions.
“We know that this kind of information can be used to determine what people are feeling, especially emotions like happiness or anxiety,” said Ray Walsh, a digital privacy researcher at ProPrivacy. “When you can literally see a person look at an ad for a watch, glance for ten seconds, smile, and ponder whether they can afford it, that’s providing more information than ever before.”
Meta has already developed a ton of technology for these purposes. The company filed a patent for a system that “adapts media content” based on facial expressions back in January, and it has experimented with harnessing and manipulating people’s emotions for more than a decade. In January, it patented a mechanical eyeball.
Despite the public’s privacy concerns about Meta, it may be hard for people who use the company’s products to resist activating the eye-tracking features because of what they will allow your avatar to do.
“If Meta is successful, there’s going to be a stigma attached with denying that data,” ProPrivacy’s Walsh said. “You don’t want to be the only one looking like an expressionless zombie in a virtual room full of people smiling and frowning.”
Right now, there are no ads in Horizon Worlds, the company’s first iteration of the Metaverse. Given that Meta’s two-dimensional business model relies so heavily on ads, the incursion of them seems inevitable. The company has begun allowing some creators to monetize their time in Horizon Worlds via the sale of digital items.
Of course, eye-tracking data could be used to determine what you’re thinking about buying. Maybe you spend a few extra seconds glancing at an expensive digital fedora, and the company sends you a coupon code an hour later. But measuring your emotions opens up a whole new arena for targeted ads.
Digital marketing is all about showing you the right ad at the right moment. Walsh says advertisers could build campaigns with content specifically designed for people who seem frustrated, or more cheerful ad for people who are in a good mood.
There are some special regulations that companies need to navigate when they’re tracking your actual body—as opposed to spying on every tap of your fingers on phone, where there are very few US rules.
A number of states have passed biometrics laws, which regulate data related to physical characteristics. The most significant is Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which requires companies to get your consent before collecting and processing biometric data. It’s probably the country’s strongest privacy law because it gives individual people the right to sue companies for violating it. Most other state laws only let regulators take action, which has made enforcement less likely. By contrast, Google, Meta, Snap, and others have settled BIPA lawsuits for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meta has a bad track record when it comes to facial recognition privacy. Tens of millions of Facebook users were missing a privacy setting that let them turn off facial recognition for almost two years before the company fixed the problem. Meta took an ironic victory lap last year when it shut down Facebook’s facial recognition features and deleted around a billion face prints. But the company never promised to stop using facial recognition data altogether, and here we are with a shiny new product that will measure the windows to your soul. The question remains, though, of what Meta will do with that data after you hand it over.