By Mikael Lemberg

May 2nd, 2017

Our Director of Product Innovation & Partnerships Mikael attended Facebook’s developer conference in San Jose. Here he shares his impressions from a truly landmark event.

This year’s F8 Conference in San Jose was eye-opening to say the least. It differed markedly from the previous few years with a major shift in focus.

In the past, F8s have been tended to be mostly about advertising. Last year, for example, Messenger for Business was a headlining topic. But this F8 was all about the future.

That may not seem surprising from one of the world’s most famous tech companies, but this time around I think everyone there was struck by the level of ambition.

Zuckerberg & Co. are thinking big huge and playing a fascinating long-game.

Facebook’s big play: augmented & virtual reality
It is hardly news that Facebook has been tinkering with augmented and virtual reality. 360 photos and video are now standard Facebook features that fit perfectly with Oculus Rift and similar technologies. 

But at F8, Facebook made its long-term plans for this space clear, and these are nothing short of awesome in their ambition and long-term vision.

Facebook sees AR/VR as the future of not only social media, but digital technology in general. So they are investing big-time in it now, even before the technology they envisage exists.

In San Jose a couple of new announcements laid the groundwork for a virtually incredible future.

Facebook Spaces
Facebook Spaces is a giant leap in virtual chatrooms. It was unveiled by Facebook’s Head of Social VR Rachel Franklin who described it like this:

“With Facebook Spaces, you can view Facebook content with friends in VR, including 360 videos and photos that can transport you to new places. You can draw in the air with a virtual marker to create anything you can dream up, from a decorative hat to a handmade tic-tac-toe board.”

You can see it in action here:

And me in virtual action here:

F8 Conference

Virtual Mikael. Live from Rio via San Jose.

I can tell you it is amazing. You really get the sense of being there. There are a lot of small touches that complete the experience. When you as your avatar speak your mouth matches your words. Any avatars you address move their eyes towards you.

As well as being fascinating and fun, Facebook bridges the real world and VR by enabling you to integrate Facebook Messenger. Messages that you receive hover above your avatar’s virtual wristwatch. With one tap you can video call a friend to share your virtual experience with them.

Up until now, VR has been a very confined space for a very few people. By connecting it to the rest of the world through something as simple as Messenger, Facebook is finally making this technology real and applicable to real-life.

E-commerce and tourism are just two of the industries where I think we could easily see the commercial uptake of Facebook Spaces.

Camera Effects Platform
This augmented reality platform may seem a bit cute at first glance. But it represents some incredibly advanced AI technology, and the first step in an incredibly smart move.

The platform features Frame Studio, an online creative editor that allows you to design frames to augment Facebook camera snaps. Then there is the beta AR Studio that hands creative developers a pile of tools to create new augmented reality experiences for Facebook’s camera.

There is a vast use case for Camera Effects beyond cartoony fun. In the future it could augment any product you view with layers of additional information. One example would be recognizing a wine brand and displaying the average Vivino rating over it.

Open APIs: Facebook’s long-game masterstroke
F8 also saw Facebook unveiling the next generation of its 360-degree cameras. This time around, however, the cameras will be licensed to content developers. It’s an incredible piece of hardware integrating six or 24 cameras, 3D capability and “six degrees of freedom” movement.

F8 Conference

Facebook’s latest 360-degree cameras.

This is a landmark moment. Ten years ago Facebook opened up its API to become a developer platform, a move that among other things made companies like my own possible. This announcement has a similar significance. Ten years from now, I predict it will have created thousands of businesses.

"We’re making the camera the first augmented reality platform."

Mark Zuckerberg

Now, by making hardware like this available alongside platforms such as Camera Effects, Facebook is enabling and encouraging content developers to build and experiment with AR content.

Their end-goal is to build a flourishing developer ecosystem that specializes in this medium, so that in five, 10 or 15 years when the hardware is ready, Facebook will already have this planet’s richest AR content ecosystem.

AR will define the future of everyday software
Facebook’s long-game play is based on the prediction that AR is set to replace the hardware we know today. Telephones, tablets and laptops will disappear and how we interact on social channels will transform.

Think about all the physical objects that you own today. Consider how few of them actually need to be physical. Basically, any object that is not designed to contain or move something could be replaced by software. Perhaps the next TV you buy won’t be a $2,000 55” flat screen – it may very likely be just a 99 cent app for your AR glasses.

We can only speculate what form these glasses will take. Or how we will control them. Can we expect to see people walking down the street doing wild hand gestures or barking commands? Google glassholes 2.0? Possibly, as an interim step, but in the long-run Facebook has something else entirely in mind.

We’ll be using mind power, no seriously
By the time the AR hardware has matured, Facebook is betting that so will have another technology: optical neuro-imaging. As explained by Regina Dugan, their Head of Experimental Technologies, this will allow people to type simply by thinking about it.

It’s “closer than you think”, Dugan said. And if that doesn’t sound sci-fi enough, she emphasized the far greater capacity such mental processing will enable: 100 words per minute, five times faster than is possible with smartphone typing.

As Zuckerberg said later that day in a post, “our brains produce enough data to stream 4 HD movies every second. The problem is that the best way we have to get information out into the world – speech – can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem.”

Exploiting our brainpower through “non-invasive” technology is probably the most extraordinary future technology Facebook’s strategy is preparing for today.

So what’s the money angle in all this?
With the topic of monetization never far from social media platforms, people have been quick to ask me this.

So far there is no obvious money angle. There doesn’t need to be. Facebook’s strategy right now is to get the most innovative entrepreneurs, engineers developers, and companies excited about the stuff that’s coming from them.

Facebook bets that VR and AR will become the next big computing platform – with billions of users. If they end up owning it, monetizing it will be the least of their problems.

To say the folk in Menlo Park are playing it long and smart would be an understatement.

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