Facebook Is Just What Augmented Reality Needs

By rolling out an AR platform that lets developers create effects for its camera, Facebook may finally make the technology popular.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Augmented reality is coming to your Facebook feed. On Tuesday, the world’s largest social network announced new software that developers can use to build a range of augmented-reality experiences for the Facebook in-app camera, making it possible to add three-dimensional objects and effects to images.  

Several examples shown off on stage at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference look a lot like the filters available through Snapchat’s Lenses feature, including those that add animated effects to photos. The platform is currently available in a closed beta test for developers.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out a grand vision for augmented reality at the conference. He imagines a future where you may be sitting in your living room, wearing your AR-enabled lenses, and when you get a hankering for chess you can easily make a set appear on the real table in front of you. Perhaps you’ll go on vacation in Rome and see directions overlaid on streets and information about historical landmarks, he said, or skin your house with a virtual version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for your kid’s birthday.

While it may seem silly to use augmented reality to do things like enhance photos with animal ears or rainbows streaming out of your eyes, Zuckerberg said, it gives us “the ability to show what matters to us on a daily basis.”

Zuckerberg is hardly the first techie to push AR. Augmented reality has been a part of smartphone apps for years, helped by ever-improving processors, sensors, and wireless networks (see “Augmented Reality Is Finally Getting Real”). Way back in 2009, for instance, Yelp released a feature in its app that let users hold up their phone and see floating details about nearby businesses. But it wasn’t until the mobile game Pokémon Go became popular in the summer of 2016 that the technology seemed to have a chance of cracking the mainstream (see “Here’s Why Pokémon Go Is Taking Off”).

With Facebook now pushing the technology and encouraging developers to build all kinds of experiences that incorporate it, augmented reality’s future seems brighter still. Facebook has nearly two billion users, which gives it enormous clout among developers.

Yet while Facebook is currently concentrating on making your smartphone the main window to an augmented world, and wants developers to follow suit, the company indicated that it sees this role as somewhat temporary.

“We’re not using primitive tools today because we prefer primitive tools,” Zuckerberg said, presumably referring to the smartphone. “We’re using primitive tools because we’re still early in the journey to create better ones.”

Over time, he expects, people will want glasses or even contact lenses that “feel normal” and let us overlay digital objects on the real world. A number of companies have already tried this—from Google, with its failed Glass experiment, to Microsoft, with its $3,000 developer-geared HoloLens headset. But it has proved hard to shrink the technology enough to fit well into, say, a pair of glasses while remaining functional.

Facebook’s size and might won’t guarantee success for AR. While the company has dedicated itself to popularizing virtual reality with its 2014 purchase of VR headset maker Oculus, for instance, that technology still hasn’t gained much traction among consumers.

Still, with augmented reality as with virtual reality, Zuckerberg stressed that it will take years to develop the kinds of experiences he envisions. The company sees both technologies as taking a decade to become really common.

“But over time,” he said on Tuesday, “I think this is going to be a very important technology that changes how we use our phones, and eventually all of technology.”

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