With new VR and AR services, Facebook dives deeper into virtual worlds – and the real world

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In an apparent concession that virtual and augmented reality are taking longer than expected to blossom, Facebook Inc. today announced a raft of more pragmatic VR and AR services and partnerships that it hopes will jumpstart both.

For one, the company today at its F8 developer conference in San Jose, California, announced Facebook Spaces (pictured), new VR app that allows people to join with friends in a virtual environment. Oddly enough, it looks a lot like the virtual world Second Life, now more than a decade old. Spaces is launching in a beta test for the Oculus Rift and Touch today, with the app downloadable from the Oculus Store.

Facebook also unveiled a Camera Effects platform for augmented reality that will allow both developers and mere mortals to create overlays using the camera feature inside the Facebook app. Although some observers thought Facebook was simply copying a feature of Snapchat with camera, it’s now clear that it was intending to build what it today called the first platform for AR applications.

And the foundation of augmented reality for the near term won’t be either the VR headset Oculus Rift Facebook bought for $2 billion three years ago or the likes of Google’s failed Glass, Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said at the keynote. Instead, it will be the phone in your hand.

Taken together, the new initiatives put more meat on the bones of Zuckerberg’s vision of turning VR and AR into social experiences. He reckons they’re likely to be more engaging than the individual experiences that have dominated the use cases for the technologies so far. Indeed, it’s clear from Zuckerberg’s focus in the keynote on just about everything but the core Facebook app itself that he views AR and VR as the future of Facebook itself.

“Facebook is focusing on creating a more open AR platform that, while still very early, may develop into a core competitive advantage as it attempts to establish its AR/VR platform,” Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Research, said in a note to clients. “We believe the contest to be the dominant AR/VR platform will, along and in concert with AI/Machine leaning, be among the biggest new technology battles we have ever seen.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Robert Hof)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Robert Hof)

In particular, Zuckerberg held up AR as the next great communications platform, likely to be even bigger than the more widely hyped VR. “This is going to be a really important technology that changes how we use our phones and eventually all of technology,” Zuckerberg told the 4,000 software developers at the conference.

The annual F8 conference is intended to rally developers to do more with Facebook services and spread its tentacles into the broader Internet. It’s clearer than ever that VR and particularly AR are what Zuckerberg views as the best way to do that.

Fast and furious

The unveilings came so fast and furious that it looks more than a little like Facebook is using its advertising riches to throw a lot of new stuff against the wall, hoping it will stick. Both Zuckerberg and David Marcus, vice president of messaging platforms, conceded that previous efforts in some areas didn’t hit the mark and cautioning that the new projects will take awhile to catch on.

With good reason, according to some observers, especially when it comes to virtual and augmented reality. “A new wave of younger kids who grew up with smartphones are more likely to experiment,” said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. But he added, “Even with these tailwinds, we should all be very skeptical on virtualized life as very little of it has stuck. What has stuck so far are putting bunny ears on videos and creepy voices on Snaps. That’s it so far.”

As he has at nearly every public event at which he has appeared lately, Zuckerberg harped on the need to find more common ground among diverse groups and communities. The need is all the more obvious, he said, because of incidents such as the video of a murder that was posted on Facebook where it was viewable for more than two hours. “We’re doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening,” he said. He didn’t offer details on how Facebook intended to do that, however.

Zuckerberg quickly moved on to demonstrate a few examples of how the Camera Effects platform could spur new experiences, such as raining virtual Skittles down into a room, watering a plant with a virtual rain cloud, or leaving a virtual note to a friend at the dive bar where you plan to meet. But he’s also thinking of potential business applications such as adding an information card to a bottle of wine on the table

If some of those sound either frivolous or obvious, Zuckerberg seemed to concede the point, noting that’s why Facebook is building a platform for other developers to do better. But he also has said that he sees AR potentially becoming a much more expansive platform, suggesting to the New York Times, for instance, that it could replace many physical objects, so a television could become a $1 app on AR glasses.

David Marcus, VP of Messenger at Facebook (Photo: Robert Hof)

David Marcus, VP of Messenger at Facebook (Photo: Robert Hof)

There’s a lot of technology behind even the currently primitive examples of AR applications, said Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. The platform uses convolutional deep learning neural networks to do image and object recognition and determine how people are oriented in the real-world and moving virtual objects correctly in relation to them in real time. AI technologies also allow the two-dimensional images of the phone to be transformed into realistic 3-D images.

Not least, Facebook highlighted a new Messenger platformDavid Marcus, vice president of Messenger, admitted the first version didn’t deliver on all the promises made a year ago when the platform launched as a way for developers to create experiences to connect with prospective and existing customers, especially through bots. Since then, he said, the platform has been updated four times with new user interface elements, videos and animated GIFs. Some 2 billion messages a month have been exchanged between businesses and people.

To extend the momentum, Facebook introduced Chat Extensions for developers to enable multiple people to chat with the same business simultaneously. For instance, they can share a new bot from Spotify or, soon, Apple Music, to share song clips with friends. Other businesses might enable restaurant reservations and movie tickets to be arranged among a group on Messenger.

Photo: Facebook