The Future of Engagement – Where the Virtual World Meets the Real World

Earlier this week at its F8 developers conference, Facebook kicked off the festivities with a keynote from Mark Zuckerberg. After starting with a slew of jokes about the comparison of F8 to Vin Diesel’s F8, the eighth installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise – The Fate of the Furious (and no Vin Diesel didn’t make a guest appearance), that’s when things really started to get interesting.

This year’s road map themes felt like a real extension and evolution of last year’s with the next level of Augmented Reality front and center of their new and upcoming products. Like many of us, Zuckerberg really thought glasses would bring out the next big wave of AR adoption, but has very deftly realized that the camera was a far better, more powerful tool for AR with what we’ve all seen with masks and objects in the real world like Pokémon, going so far as to say “we’re making the camera the first augmented reality platform.” Where fancy and expensive glasses failed, I think the camera will win – because of mass adoption of devices with cameras, there is no barrier to entry.

For Facebook, phase 1 was adding and evolving cameras to all of Facebook’s apps and phase 2 is augmenting reality through those cameras. Artificial Intelligence for cameras has been a long time coming, really since back in 2012 or so, but the capability has come on in leaps and bounds since then and “putting that power into your pocket” has been a big focus for Facebook’s engineering team this past year. First comes AI to power experiences like masks and filters to make every day, mundane tasks fun, entertaining, and shareable, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine watching one of this weekend’s NBA playoff games, but when Lebron James is at the line to shoot free throws you could easily see his shooting percentage, or you’re going to dinner tonight you could look at a restaurant to see reviews, or if you’re on vacation in London looking at Big Ben you could see overlaid historical footnotes. That as they say, is where the plot thickens.

To help facilitate this and energize the developer communities around this, Facebook announced two things: 1) Frames Studio & 2) AR Studio. Frames Studio is allowing a wider audience to tap into Frames on FB, which are essentially social image filters to let users customize their profile pictures. Select folks have been able to use this previously, but not on a wide basis and we know from experience that this is something media, entertainment, sports, brands, non-profits, etc. all would love to be able to do. AR Studio is opening up the ability for developers to get creative and build on Facebook’s engine to build their own AR experiences. This includes utilizing capabilities like real-time face tracking, hand tracking, body tracking, pinning virtual items in the real world and much more.

Other key highlights from the conference were Social Virtual Reality and Messenger Platform 2.0. In the VR space, I have some bad news for all the young or soon to be parents out there – with the arrival of Facebook Spaces to beta, in the not too distant future your kids may no longer want to hang out with you in person. Instead, they may want your avatars to meet their own VR world that Spaces would let them create, so better start purchasing your Oculus headsets now and get practicing. The birds and the bees conversations in the future should certainly be very interesting! Social VR certainly has endless possibilities, but still has some very big hurdles to clear, 1,000’s of them actually. With the combination of costs for Oculus and a fairly beefy desktop computer currently required, that means a very sizable investment to get users on to the platform. For this to really fulfill the promise of VR, the tech will need to continue to evolve and get much cheaper for mass adoption.

Messenger 2.0 also brings a variety of new capabilities to the growing platform, but two of these really stood out to me. The first is a new Discover tab allowing users a much easier way to find and engage with the bots most relevant for them, making Messenger the “yellow pages” of messaging. Bots still do have a discovery challenge at the moment, and this sounds like a great stride to improving that process. The second is Chat Extensions, which allow users to bring in other businesses or bot into conversations, e.g. use Spotify to bring songs into your conversations. Along those lines it was said that this will be a big year for Music on Messenger with Apple Music coming to the platform soon.

I’ll save the best, or at least most intriguing highlight, for last. Zuckerberg very subtly slipped into the keynote that Facebook has been researching brain to computer technology that will “one day let you communicate using only your mind.”

We don’t anticipate incorporating telepathic technology into our toolset just yet, but our engineering team is looking at how our Live Studio platform may evolve in the future with 360 Video and AR very much in our line of sight. We already have Messenger capability and new features like Chat Extensions make perfect sense in our roadmap to enhance the user experience. Watch this (virtual) space…