Augmented reality — technology that overlays digital content on your real-world surroundings — took center stage from Facebook at the social media network’s F8 conference last week. While the company’s virtual reality investments still got some show time, Facebook spent most of the conference’s opening day showcasing its ambitious AR plans.
Through developer support, the company wants to make AR its next major platform — and not simply just a social media novelty. In AR, users could leave notes for friends or play games that recognize and draw from real-world spaces.
For Facebook, the idea of taking AR from its infancy — where most users’ frame of reference starts and ends with “Pokemon Go” — and building a viable ecosystem out of the platform has obvious appeal. The company has made moonshots in the past on expanding the boundaries of its network as with the short-lived Facebook phone, and the prospect of making a bet on an early platform that pays off can only bolster Facebook’s larger goals.
As early along as augmented reality is as a technology, though, there’s also a secondary reason why Facebook is pouring money into the platform.
F8’s launch for the “Second Life”-like Facebook Spaces illustrates a lot of the current limitations of virtual reality that AR hopes to figure out. The novelty of being able to virtually hang out with your friends aside, the beta is still hampered by a lot of initial hurdles.
There’s the cost of entry for hardware like the Oculus Rift headset, the awkwardness of VR (Facebook’s promo video for Spaces featured several users simply sitting alone in rooms with a headset) and the still dismal adoption of VR in nongaming contexts. In an Entertainment Software Association report, only 15 percent of mobile users use VR to socialize with friends.
But beyond the company's bottom line, Facebook also has loftier goals for its investment in AR. As founder Mark Zuckerberg pointed out to Buzzfeed, Facebook has long operated at the intersection of the real and digital worlds, making AR a logical extension for the company.
“When you can make it so that you can intermix digital and physical parts of the world, that's going to make a lot of our experiences better and our lives richer,” Zuckerberg said.
The new direction for Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean that the company is abandoning its virtual reality investments. As Zuckerberg acknowledges, its AR and VR developments will likely grow alongside each other, rather than in competition. At the moment, both projects are intended to march toward the same goal: to have technology that can quickly process what you see. While AR right now might be limited to filters for gimmicks like text and animated characters, Facebook wants to be at the forefront of where the technology goes next.