Facebook's future will blend physical and digital worlds

SAN FRANCISCO — On Tuesday, Facebook wants to augment your reality.

That's when the giant social network hosts its annual F8 conference for software developers, a decidedly geeky affair that nevertheless has real-world implications for everyday Facebook users.

Last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook's 10-year road map that calls for powerful technologies to radically alter how people connect with friends and family and the world at large. This year Facebook is poised to show off what it meant.

Here's the future according to Facebook: The smartphone camera is on the verge of taking augmented reality mainstream, changing how people use Facebook, how they interact with each other and how they interact with the world.

Think Pokemon Go but on steroids. We will wander not one, but two worlds — the physical and the digital — wearing glasses or contact lenses that can summon information about the street we are walking on or the restaurant we are eating in or let us manipulate digital objects that feel real but aren't really there.

The augmented reality lenses that Facebook is building to deliver that hybrid experience are still years in the offing. But smartphones are already in our pockets and Facebook believes they can start delivering experiences that mix the digital with the physical much sooner than we think.

"We are clearly in a visual world. It’s interesting to think about all of the things we do with our eyes and why our phones don’t help us do more of this on camera. Recognizing whether we are in the right place, seeing people around us, capturing memories without having to make a lot of effort to take a photo," says Josh Elman, a partner with Greylock who worked for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter before becoming a venture capitalist. "Facebook knows this and it’s going hard."

For the moment, the augmented reality tricks we can do with smartphones are fairly primitive, technically speaking. For instance: Facebook's camera effects that jazz up selfies with silly or whimsical masks, frames and filters.

But Facebook isn't just in the business of helping people take "cool selfies," says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. It's focused on creating experiences that will fundamentally change how people interact with each other and the physical world.

"We are just seeing the beginning of the sophistication of smartphones and how they relate to the user and how the user can use them in mixed and augmented reality scenarios," says Blau.

Picture what could happen if the collective brainpower of thousands of software developers from around the globe were unleashed to dream up all kinds of new augmented reality experiences. On Tuesday Facebook's expected to hand them that opportunity by opening up the camera effects platform to software developers. It's also likely to show off new augmented reality experiences it has created and those being created by a select group of outside developers.

"The more outside developers work with Facebook, the more powerful the company becomes without having to employ more engineers or buy more companies," says Steven Levy, editor of tech industry news service Backchannel.

One way to lure developers is with F8, an annual rite designed to dazzle, this year more than ever. Facebook has relocated from smaller conference quarters in San Francisco to the convention center in San Jose, making room for about 4,000 attendees, nearly double from last year, and a technological Disneyland of splashy interactive demos and displays. And, just like last year's F8 when Facebook trumpeted opening up Messenger to developers creating chat bots, it has surprises in store over two days, analysts say.

From the livestreamed event, expect advances in how virtual reality can become truly social, beyond playing games or taking selfies in 360-degree recreations of real places, and updates to Facebook Messenger.

On the second day of the conference, Facebook will tease futuristic gadgets, some of which are being cooked up in a secretive lab called Building 8 run by former Google executive and head of DARPA Regina Dugan. Building 8 has been stocking up on experts in consumer electronics, neuroscience, and robotics and computer vision. Cameras are said to be part of the experimental mix and so is brain scanning (the distant promise of telepathy is something that fascinates Zuckerberg).

Facebook has been coaxing developers to build novel experiences for the social media company going back 10 years.

Why? To entice more people to spend more time on Facebook or one of its family of apps: messaging services Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and photo-sharing network Instagram. In fact, outside developers have been essential to Facebook's oft-stated mission to connect everyone in the world and to pump up its ever-ballooning bottom line.

In May 2007 when Facebook held its first F8, it had 24 million users and Zuckerberg was 23 years old. He took the stage in a T-shirt, fleece pullover, baggy jeans and flip flops to announce that any company could build services on Facebook for its users.

At the time, it was a radical move. Zuckerberg predicted Facebook Platform, which launched with about 65 partners and 85 apps, would become the most powerful distribution mechanism created in a generation. The flood of apps for every want or need not only transformed the user experience, Facebook grew faster and kept people engaged longer.

These days the stakes are even higher. Facebook is investing heavily in its futuristic vision, sometimes to the alarm of Wall Street. But the other option is corporate stasis, which has killed off plenty of one-time aspirants to the technology hall of fame. Google, Microsoft and Amazon and the more youthful contender Snapchat are all in the same relentless pursuit of the technology of the future and Facebook cannot afford to fall behind.

​A key item on Zuckerberg's wish list: Lightweight yet powerful portable lenses, glasses and contact lenses, that, like smartphones, can keep chugging through much of the day without being charged.

"The goal is to make VR and AR what we all want it to be: glasses small enough to take anywhere, software that lets you experience anything, and technology that lets you interact with the virtual world just like you do with the physical one,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post in February after visiting the Oculus Research lab in Redmond, Washington.

Getting into the hardware business, as Facebook has with its $3 billion purchase of Oculus, means navigating razor-thin profit margins and highly complex logistics. But one thing is clear: Facebook is determined to own augmented and virtual reality the way other tech giants own mobile, and that means it has to gets its mitts around not just the software, but the hardware, too.

This is a "show me the innovation" moment for Facebook, Blau says.

"Facebook has been really successful at being Facebook, at the core social network. It's also been really successful at acquiring other companies and turning them into something pretty great," says Blau. "But we haven't seen a lot of innovation in recent years."

Zuckerberg's not one to shrink from a challenge. He believes in placing big bets, not just to fuel Facebook's very profitable march into every nook and cranny of the known universe, but, in his view, to make the world more open and connected, and consequently, a better place.

Facebook is constantly looking at how technology is evolving and questioning: "How do we make this a social experience of value to our users and make them do it on Facebook?" says Backchannel's Levy.

And so far that's worked out pretty well. "Facebook is the No. 1 place where we spend our time online," he says.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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