Facebook’s mood study: How you became the guinea pig


By Seth Rosenblatt and Ian Sherr

When news spread over the weekend that Facebook had manipulated its news feed to study how social media posts affect people’s emotions, the real surprise was that anyone was that surprised.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by Facebook researcher Adam Kramer, Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University, and Jamie Guillory of the University of California at San Francisco, found that people tended to reflect the emotional state of their friends’ posts.

So if your friends wrote happy posts, your posts in turn tended to be happier. Friends posting about a bad day at work would tend to bring you down.

The disclosure triggered a sharp backlash and elicited an attempt by Facebook to seek forgiveness — one in a long line of mea culpas the company has issued over the years. Yet anyone paying close attention to the boilerplate disclaimers that tech companies regularly publish might have seized upon a couple of seemingly innocent-sounding phrases tucked away in the company’s data use policy that spoke volumes.

Among other things, Facebook says quite clearly in the published document that it might use the information it gathers from people on its social network “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

The tandem phrases “data analysis” and “research” appear to be unique to Facebook’s user legalese. They do not appear in Google’s terms of service and privacy policy, while “research” does appear in Yahoo’s privacy policy but not its terms of service. LinkedIn is open in its privacy policy about the research it conducts on its users.

Google and Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment on whether they perform similar research on their users.

Facebook learning the costs of consumer hardware with Oculus


By Ian Sherr

Facebook’s $2 billion deal to buy virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR brings the promise of new technologies that literally change how people see the world.

But the acquisition of the headset maker, expected to be completed in coming weeks, is also giving Facebook some headaches.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in March he was buying a virtual reality company that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with social networking, company watchers were surprised. Oculus makes a headset, called the Rift, that plugs into a computer and displays images designed to transport users into virtual worlds. Put on the goggles and you could suddenly be exploring a sandy beach halfway across the world or battling an enemy from the cockpit of a starship — without leaving your chair. The Rift has become a darling of video game industry veterans who extoll its virtue as an entirely new way of engaging in virtual experiences.

But Zuckerberg says games are “just the start.” Oculus’ technology will change industries, from health care to education and beyond. “People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives,” he wrote in a March 25 Facebook post explaining how virtual reality is no longer the “dream of science fiction.” Oculus’s technology, he said, “opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences.”

What Zuckerberg perhaps didn’t see was that making consumer hardware is expensive — and more so for Oculus than initially expected. The costs associated with researching, developing, and building Oculus’s headset has begun raising eyebrows among Facebook’s executives, people familiar with the matter say. Some of that is the result of Oculus’s efforts to keep expanding its operations and building out its teams, as well as new initiatives such as publishing and research and development. Some has to do with a change in the components Oculus wants to use to build its devices.

The result is that the acquisition is proving more complex than other large deals, such as of photo-sharing app Instagram, though Oculus is a larger company with more than 100 employees.

Facebook declined to comment, as did Oculus.

No matter what’s driving up costs, the surprise at Oculus’ increasing financial demands could stem from Facebook’s lack of experience producing mass market consumer hardware. Facebook partnered with hardware makers in the past, including with HTC on its Facebook Home initiative – which was launched and abandoned last year.

But building technology on its own is different. With Oculus, the decade-old social networking giant is now funding everything from industrial design to manufacturing — and tackling all the rigmarole that comes with becoming a serious player in the consumer electronics market.

“Hardware is hard,” said Michael Geyer, who researches manufacturing technologies for design software maker Autodesk. The logistics of mass production are usually more expensive than newcomers expect, he said, particularly when they begin grappling with finding reputable factories that can churn out products quickly, and at a high quality. “Getting where Oculus got with their first prototypes was fantastic, but the work is only beginning for them.”

Oculus has said it will be happy to break even, though investment costs could reach into the billions before that happens.

Google to turn on new set-top boxes with Android TV software


By Ian Sherr, Shara Tibken and Joan E. Solsman

Google, after failing to score a hit with its prior TV projects, hasn’t given up on the living room just yet.

The Mountain View, Calif., company is working with partners to produce several television set-top boxes that run its Android software, people familiar with the matter said. The devices will let users view content, listen to music, and play games on their television sets, they said.

Google plans to reveal at least one set-top box and new Android software for TVs on Wednesday at its Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco. Along with its TV efforts, Google also will show off new Android Wear smartwatches from partners such as Samsung and LG, as CNET reported, and talk about its efforts in cars and other areas.

This latest move to bring Android to TVs marks at least Google’s third major foray into the television industry. The company’s previous attempts, including its Google TVs in 2010, have fallen flat, with former partner Logitech calling its Google TV “a mistake of implementation of a gigantic nature.” Many Android partners — including Samsung and LG — now rely on their own software to drive their TVs and set-top boxes.

For Google, though, the large market for smart TVs and streaming media boxes makes it worth another try. While TV sales have been sluggish, sales of devices that plug into televisions and play video and music are expected to jump to 330 million units by 2017, double the tally from last year, according to market researcher Parks Associates. More than 50 percent of US households connect their TV to the Internet in some fashion, the researcher also said.

The market potential is luring consumer electronics giants, including Apple, whose $99 Apple TV set-top box grew from a “hobby” product in 2007 to a $1 billion business in 2013. Amazon also announced its own set-top box, the $99 Fire TV, in April.