Facebook has been working hard to curb the influence and growth of Snapchat, introducing a range of new features which replicate much of the ephemeral content app's functionality. And the next stage of that push may be close, with Facebook's Chief Product Officer Chris Cox this week demonstrating a new tool the company's working on which can turn live video into more artistic, graphically enhanced variations on the form.
Here's Cox providing the audience at WSJD Live with a demo of the new tool.
And here's a better look at the actual functionality, with a video posted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of his dog Beast.
The presentation is similar to visual editing app Prisma, which has gained a lot of attention in recent times with its painting-style overlay functionality.
One of the most talked about apps of the year, Prisma was downloaded more than 10 million times within a month of release, becoming the 10th most downloaded app in the US in the process (#3 in the Photo and Video category). That proves the use-case for such functionality, and Facebook's version may be even better. For example, while Prisma takes a few seconds to apply your chosen effects, as shown in the above example from Cox, Facebook's filter can be applied in real-time, which has many speculating that the option will be coming to Facebook Live sometime soon.
Visual editing tools like this may seem like a novelty - and they are - but such novelties can have significant appeal, particularly in the markets Facebook is trying to reach. For example, Snapchat's Geofilters - image overlays that are triggered by location - are used by around a million Snapchatters every day, while their face-altering Lenses are used more than 10 million times every 24 hours.
If Facebook can offer similar, if not better, options within their toolset, that'll be another way for them slow the expansion of Snapchat - though 'better' is the real trick in this regard. If Facebook's options are so compelling, so great, that users need to share them with friends and get more people across to those apps, that'll be a big win for The Social Network.
Given recent indications, Facebook Live looks the most likely home for these new tools, though Instagram Stories would also benefit from such additions. Facebook's about to launch a new ad campaign which highlights how people can "go Live", so the addition of new features and tools would make sense in this context.
Facebook's also already brought their Lenses equivalent, MSQRD video masks, to Live, and given the ongoing focus on video options (during his talk at WSJD Live, Cox also noted that video will account for more than 70% of all mobile data traffic by 2021), enhancing their live-streaming option works within the platform's vision of making Facebook a "video first" company. Use of Facebook Live has also grown 4X since its launch earlier this year.
That said, Instagram Stories is the platform's most direct competitor for Snapchat, and may be their best bet at stunting Snapchat's growth. Facebook's strategy with their Snapchat alternatives seems to be focused on releasing similar apps and tools in markets where Snapchat has, as yet, failed to get a foothold - Stories, for example, is reportedly thriving in Russia, where Snapchat adoption is low. Along this line, Facebook has also introduced other Snapchat-like features, including Messenger Day within Messenger, which has been released in Poland and Australia thus far.
And while the functionalities of such tools are interesting, they still seem to lack the appeal and kick that Snapchat has, which is largely fuelled by innovation. To really beat them at their own game, Facebook will need to release tools that are a cut above Snapchat's offerings - not just in a functional sense, but in a creative capacity also.
Of more interest, then, may be what else Facebook can do with the technology behind this new tool. As noted by TechCrunch, the feature's "based on a German academic paper about style transfer that employs convolutional neural nets to bring the style of artists like Monet or Rembrandt and apply it instantly to video".
Using that as the model, Facebook could have access to a whole range of filter options beyond just Primsa-like painting overlays. Back in August, Facebook acquired "musical selfie" app EyeGroove which enables (or enabled, as it's now been shut down) users to create high-quality music videos with a range of special effects.
Those tools, combined with their new image filters, and assisted by the team behind Masquerade, could be the basis for a whole new set of options that are simply not available in any form on any other platform. That's where Facebook could really win out. The samples we've seen thus far are similar, they're what we've all seen before. But something totally new and different could give Facebook Live and/or Instagram Stories a significant boost.
That said, even if Instagram Stories were able to simply match all the functionality of Snapchat, you can imagine that would still slow Snapchat's growth - why use another app when all the functionality, and all your network, is already in one place? As such, duplicating such features within the various Facebook experiences also makes some sense.
The bottom line is that you can expect Facebook to be coming out with a range of new visual tools, for both Live and Instagram Stories, very soon.
What form, exactly, they take will be the real difference.