Facebook is betting big on augmented reality, and the technology — which overlays digital text and objects on the real world through a lens — was the major theme of the company’s annual F8 developer conference this week.
Facebook’s announcements were bold, futuristic, and at times, a little hard to piece together.
But after listening to all the keynotes and sitting down for interviews with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and CTO Mike Schroepfer, we think we’re getting the hang of it.
Here’s what’s worth knowing about Facebook’s AR ambitions so far — and what we’re still wondering about.
Is Facebook building augmented–reality glasses?
Yes. Facebook spent a lot of time this week talking about its vision for AR glasses, and how that vision starts with the features for your smartphone camera.
Eventually, Facebook thinks AR glasses will be able to help you do everything from transforming your house into a magical castle to providing you with the nutritional information of whatever food you happen to be looking at.
Why does Facebook want to build AR glasses?
Facebook believes glasses will be the next (or the next next) major platform where people go to consume content and interact with services.
“Twenty or thirty years from now, I predict that instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we’ll wear stylish glasses,” said Michael Abrash, the chief scientist for Oculus, from the conference stage today. “Those glasses will offer VR, AR and everything in between, and we’ll wear them all day and use them in almost every aspect of our lives.”
So Facebook actually envisions a world where everyone is wearing glasses?
Yep. Though Abrash did say “stylish” glasses, at least.
There must be another option though, right? I don’t like glasses.
We asked CTO Mike Schroepfer if the company was also building AR contact lenses, but it doesn’t sound like it. At least not yet.
“Contacts are even harder than glasses, and glasses are already pretty deep in the ‘R’ part of the R&D phase,” Schroepfer said. “You actually need to make pretty fundamental breakthroughs in optics and illuminators and a whole bunch of other things to make this work.”
Ok, so Facebook is set on building AR glasses. How soon will this actually be available?
Abrash says high-level AR glasses could be as close as five years away, but are more likely 10-plus years down the road. In the meantime, you’ll see simpler versions of AR out in the wild, he said, like the AR camera features that Facebook and Snapchat are already using.
Why is Facebook building those AR camera features anyways? They feel a little gimmicky.
One word: Snapchat.
Facebook wouldn’t admit that, of course, and there are other reasons — like its future AR glasses — that the company wants developers to start investing time and resources into AR software.
But the camera filters you’ll see now are meant to help familiarize people with the technology, jumpstart the industry so more developers get involved (like what happened with VR), and ultimately provide competition for Snapchat, which is Facebook’s biggest threat in capturing the attention of young mobile users.
How will Facebook make money from AR?
It’s early, but there are plenty of possibilities for AR advertising and other business models. (Snapchat, of course, already sells custom AR filters to advertisers.)
Facebook is still making a ton of money from Facebook, so it doesn’t need to worry about this for a long time. Still, it will be interesting to watch the revenue side emerge here.
Why would developers build AR features for Facebook? Are they being paid?
Facebook’s developer partners are not paid. Schroepfer says Facebook has thought of a business plan for its AR platform, but didn’t get into details, and likely won’t for some time.
Instead, Schroepfer says the company is offering two things that most developers crave: Access to free technology and billions of potential users to test out their creations. That’s usually enough to entice developers to give something a try.
What about the last time Facebook launched a big social app platform? Wasn’t that a cautionary tale?
It was — companies piggybacked on Facebook’s huge user base to build some very popular (if spammy) apps and games, such as Zynga’s FarmVille. Some of them got very rich, but it didn’t end well for many of them, especially those that were gimmicky and/or didn’t diversify onto other platforms. Facebook will likely have some competition for AR apps, too, from companies like Apple, Google and Snap.
Didn’t Facebook also roll out a mind control device?
You’re thinking of a mind reading device, and Facebook didn’t roll it out, but it did talk about it.
The company is working on technology to automatically transcribe your thoughts into digital text. So instead of typing out a message to someone on your phone, you would simply think about that message, and the technology would transcribe it for you.
That sounds terrifying.
Right?! Regina Dugan, who heads up Building 8 — Facebook’s secretive research lab that’s developing the technology — even agrees with you. “Is it a little terrifying? Of course,” she said on stage. “This matters. Success matters. So if we fail, it’s gonna suck.”
What does this have to do with AR? Anything?
Remember the AR glasses we just talked about? Those glasses won’t have a keyboard. And may not even have buttons, and certainly not enough to type out entire conversations the way we do now. “If I have this awesome pair of glasses, I need to have input on them in some form,” Schroepfer explained. “I could tap on it on the side or have a remote that I could carry in my pocket, but that kind of destroys the utility.” Instead, you will be able to control the device with your eyes and your brain.