How one developer got shamelessly ‘Sherlocked’ by Facebook

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Sherlocked HeroSource: Nick Sutrich / Android Central

Have you ever had an idea so good you had to stop everything you were doing just to work on it? That’s the boat Cix Liv found himself in a few years back when he realized VR headsets could be used as a way to track calories burned while playing games. After all, VR games are notoriously active games that often require you to move around quite a bit. Even accessories like the best face covers target better sweat resistance and often work to keep lenses from getting fogged from all the heat.

Liv went through all the motions you would expect to achieve his dreams. He co-founded a company of like-minded individuals named YUR, Inc. to begin the arduous journey of developing algorithms that would accurately track calories burned, no matter what game you played. He even changed his legal name to Cix Liv — a name derived from his seasoned World of Warcraft persona and one of the two companies he founded, LIV — after a nasty bout with a serious case of identity theft. Liv was all-on on his dream to turn VR gaming into something far more than a fun time had after work hours ended.

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So imagine Liv’s surprise when his company’s ingeniously designed YUR Fit software got rejected from the Oculus Store outright. To make matters worse, a year-long expedition of trying to get certified onto the store only led to Facebook themselves coming out with a nearly identical version of his app — known as Oculus Move — which was built into the Quest and Quest 2 November 2020 update, effectively rendering his work fruitless. Today, Cix Liv no longer works at YUR or LIV because of Sherlocking.

We’ve covered this, and many other examples of “Sherlocking” before, citing the deceptive practice of big companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple which regularly take ideas from smaller developers and work them into their own products’ operating systems. That, in turn, renders the third-party apps more or less useless and usually causes sales to drop off a cliff.

Sherlocking: A brief history

Tim Cook

Tim CookSource: Apple

Sherlocking originated from the eponymous Mac app that was introduced in macOS 8.5 in the late 90s. Watson, a search app released by Karelia Software in November 2001, improved upon Sherlock by adding in the ability to include web results in searches. Not even a year later in September 2002, Apple updated Sherlock to have the same functionality, completely killing off Watson in the process.

Apple never compensated Karelia Software for its idea, and the company has always stood by the line that this update was the “natural evolution of Sherlock’s search capabilities.” While that may be so, this little spat coined the term “Sherlocked” and is used to refer to any instance of a big company taking a smaller company’s ideas without proper compensation.

The term ‘Sherlocked’ is used to refer to any instance of a big company taking a smaller company’s ideas without proper compensation.

Apple has Sherlocked ideas several times since the original phrase was coined, leading many to wonder what regulatory authorities will do about it, if anything. Developers of apps that were Sherlocked are typically incensed and end up losing out on significant portions of — or all of — their cash flow, but the parties that benefit from this practice are much larger than the developers themselves. Namely, the users of a particular OS are now getting something for free where it previously had to be bought, so what’s the problem?

In a nutshell, the biggest issue is that Sherlocking isn’t just performed by Apple; just about every major company that develops an OS has been guilty of the practice, but the recent surge of popularity of the Oculus Quest 2 has brought fresh examples to light from a company that’s only just starting its foray into developing its own operating systems: Facebook.

Cix Liv’s to tell the tale

Yur Fit Logo

Yur Fit LogoSource: YUR

The journey of YUR Fit is a long and storied one, filled with all the emotions you’d expect from a blockbuster drama movie. It all started out with the Santa Cruz development kit. “Santa Cruz” was the codename for the project that would eventually become the Oculus Quest, and it was with this development kit that Cix Liv and the folks at Yur, Inc. developed YUR Fit.

Over the next several months, YUR tried to get its app approved time and time again, only to be denied for several nebulous reasons.

When YUR was rejected from the regular Oculus app store — a problem that many developers have complained about since the Quest started becoming popular — it turned to SideQuest to distribute its app. While SideQuest has become the “bastion of freedom” for Oculus developers looking to stay away from Facebook’s difficult app approval methods, it also reaches a significantly smaller user base because it requires extra steps to get working.

Over the next several months, YUR tried to get its app approved time and time again, only to be denied for several nebulous reasons. Once, the app was rejected citing performance — a legitimate concern given that the Quest line of VR headsets runs off lower-power mobile chipsets — but metrics provided by YUR proved this wasn’t an actual issue. Later, it was rejected citing privacy concerns over what data the app collects and where it’s stored. Again, a legitimate claim but one that could, ultimately, be raised over far more apps than just this one.

“The very pointed concern that I have with Facebook is how they literally just blocked us and then developed a competing app,” Liv told Android Central. In other words, Liv got Sherlocked.

When it was revealed in late 2020 that Oculus Move had been under development the entire time YUR was trying to get in the Oculus app store, red flags went up at YUR. Just how much data did Oculus have from YUR? How much of the development of the YUR Fit app did Oculus mirror with Oculus Move? These, and many other questions, were brought up in our nearly hour-long chat with Liv, who is no longer working with YUR, Inc. or LIV — the very companies he helped found.

This wasn’t just any fight for Liv. This was a fight that started when he co-founded the eponymous company in 2017 — a mixed reality capture tool that forged a living for many VR YouTube streamers — which, ironically, has also seen its features mirrored in the Oculus app you can find on your phone, also known as Oculus Mixed Reality Capture.

There is no real recourse for developers who feel they have been wronged.

As with many Sherlocking cases, both Oculus Move and Oculus Mixed Reality Capture can be chalked up to the natural evolution of the platform. After all, how could you argue against that logic when both things clearly fit the platform like a glove? The issue here revolves more around who owns the idea, both intellectually and legally, and why there doesn’t seem to be any real recourse for developers who feel they have been Sherlocked.

A Facebook spokesperson told us that “All apps on the Oculus Store are required to meet the same technical requirements that ensure users enjoy a high-quality and safe experience. We understand some developers may disagree with those requirements, but we apply them consistently. Apps that cannot meet those requirements cannot ship on the Store. We do not review apps for any purpose other than to test the app being reviewed. And when we test an app, we do not use data from those tests for other purposes.”

Facebook’s response is one that will surely be called into question by developers like Liv, who say they have experienced the exact opposite of the company’s claims.

Walled garden fortifications

Walled Garden Facebook Google Apple

Walled Garden Facebook Google AppleSource: Nick Sutrich / Android Central

Just as we’ve seen with the Right to Repair movement, the idea that you actually own the device you purchased — or, in a developer’s case, can just develop anything they’d like on any given device — is a bit of a legal grey area. As it stands, companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook are the gatekeepers for what can be bought and sold on their app stores.

In a way, it’s like the existing retail model; in order for customers to get your products, you have to find a retailer that is willing to sell your products. The problem with this analogy is that, in the retail industry, there’s actual competition. If Walmart won’t sell your product, you can just as easily go to another big-box retailer like Target. If that fails, there’s almost always some specialized…

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