Who’s Your Daddy? Not Oculus!

On October 13th, 2016 around 2:00 am PDT after tweaking “GVRgraveyard” for the upteenth time, I saw on my second monitor a tweet that Oculus had just sent out an update to the Note 7 that essentially bricked (disabled) it for its use with Samsung Gear VR. As you can see the message states:

“Customer safety is Oculus’ top priority. Oculus is removing support for all Note7 devices on the Oculus platform. Until further notice, Note7 devices will not be compatible with the Gear VR. For more information regarding the Note 7, please contact Samsung directly.”

The reality it was not safety but liability since it has been over a month since Note 7 combustions occurred, along with its first recall. It is also worth noting that mobile VR pushes the phone to its limit, raising internal temperatures and rapidly draining the battery. Yet, none of the recorded incidents occurred while connected to the GearVR. Why is this? I guess even though 65 phones out of 2.5 million causing a fire is one too many, the fact remains many Note 7s have a reliable “safe” battery. But again, since Samsung does not exactly know why or which battery lot is bad and the first attempt to fix the problem didn’t, we must assume any Note 7 could burst into flames. So why I am I angry with Oculus “doing the right thing?”

Unlike most Note 7 users, my Note 7 was purchased specifically for mobile VR development due to its larger screen (5.7″), increase in memory, Snapdragon 820 SOC, as well as the best solution to use with the Gear VR along testing Google Cardboard apps until it is upgraded to Android 7 & Google VR. Since I also own several other phones, many purchased on eBay with bad IMEIs (did not need cellular service) with most of these being last year’s models and I needed the latest mobile tech e.g. Note 7 to start testing new features offered in UE4 & Unity along with ability to test Google VR/Cardboard in UE4. However the Note 7 is not perfect and the 5.7″ screen is misnomer since part of the screen wraps around the edges which in my opinion, makes the screen narrower that other 5.7″ screen like the Nexus 6P, or even my favorite for mobile VR, the Nexus 6 with its 5.96″ screen, but sadly no one else was making a large 2560×1440 AMOLED screen, but I digress. My goal in buying the Note 7 was for development, and even after the initial recall, which I followed and had replaced even though I had tested it for hours in both Google VR and Gear VR. The replacement was also working with no problems under the same extreme VR testing. So when news broke that the replacements were also bursting into flames, I continued to test, but mindful of how long it was in in the Gear VR, or developer mode with my own VR viewer the NEODiVR uPLAy (below), always turning it off when not in use, storing it in a metal box, only using a slow-rate charger and removing it when fully charged.

Many of these techniques I have learned over the decades in developing other products and working around sensitive equipment in the USAF and elsewhere. I also have designed power and charging circuits, including Li-ION Polymer power circuits and have always treated batteries with care. Which leads me to the title of the article.

Oculus has had a heavy hand in controlling their eco-system, constantly updating their firmware for the desktop Oculus Rift to ensure its control over its walled garden until their customers pushed back, and I see that same heavy hand here. First, Oculus should have sent out an email since everyone needs to provide one when becoming part of the Oculus eco-system, as well as send an app update warning that they plan to disable its service for the Note 7. Second, make exceptions for developers and those willing to sign a indemnification letter, like those signed for other dangerous activities like skydiving, cliff climbing, and other extreme activities instead of pulling the plug without warning.

So how did they do it? Like most modern computers today, most updates come in the form of OTAs (Over The Air) updates, this is what allows your apps to stay up to date, new OS security fixes and features and for the most part these are a godsend over previous methods which the user had to download, unzip and either click on a installer or manually add files — an utter nightmare. However it is not perfect and some updates fail, corrupting the program and preventing it from being used. Normally this is fixed by deleting it and installing it again. But in some cases, the failure is deep within the OS and can cause your computer or smartphone to stop working and normally has to be brought in to be serviced. However, as in this case they can be used to switch off features as well. Tesla has done this to its “auto pilot,” Microsoft has done this Windows 7 & 8 to force you to Windows 10. Oculus however has gone one step further and used its OTA power to actually prevent you from using the Note 7 with another accessory — the ‘Gear VR 2016’ and literally turning it into a paper weight unless you either have a spare Galaxy S6, S7 (Edge), or Note 5 lying around. Or exchange your Note 7 for one of these older phones. Again remember there was no warning, no options, Oculus just set down the law and imposed the punishment. For myself, who feels they understand the risks and have taken the precautions, I was never given an opportunity to argue my case, sign indemnity letter or even get a stay of execution. My Gear VR was terminated leaving me just days from testing and submitting my app into the coveted Oculus Gear VR app store. So not only do I not have a development system; a fun Halloween VR app will never be seen by thousands of Gear VR owners. Thank you daddy Oculus.

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