A while back, when reflecting on Facebook's capacity to beat Snapchat at its own game and eliminate Snap Inc. as a competitor, I noted that while Facebook's copies of Snapchat's functionality are one thing, where they'll truly gain momentum is when they can offer experiences which are better than what Snapchat has to offer.
This is a key challenge for Facebook - Snapchat's been able to gain such momentum amongst younger users because their tools and options are cooler, they're more in-tune with their user base and have been able to innovate in line with that understanding.
But now, at their F8 conference, Facebook may have taken the next steps to move ahead of Snap.
Take a look at this:
Zuck showing off some AR effects. My first thought goes to how this will be abused to make fake news #f8 pic.twitter.com/4YaPF7hjwv- Ashish Patel (@ashishP) April 18, 2017
Facebook is turning your phone into Magic Leap pic.twitter.com/wIIeT3x96U- Tim Peterson (@petersontee) April 18, 2017
Wow, right? These demonstrations are part of Facebook's new camera tools which they're both developing and rolling out from today, in varying capacity.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg actually somewhat echoed my thoughts on these developments, noting to TechCrunch that:
"The first chapter that made sense was to release products that people were familiar with . . . but the unique thing that we're going to do is we're not just going to build basic cameras, we're going to build the first mainstream augmented reality platform."
For some time it's seemed that Facebook was more focused on virtual reality - which is still a key area moving forward - but that in that focus, maybe they were leaving the immediate, lower tech augmented options like Snapchat's Lenses alone. That's not the case.
In a post on Facebook, Zuckerberg notes that the roll out of new camera tools and options within Facebook's family of apps was act one - act two is the introduction of their new Camera Effects Platform, which will enable developers to build all kinds of AR tools - which goes live from today.
The new platform incorporates two creative tools - Frame Studio and AR studio.
"Frame Studio is a web-based tool which enables anyone with a profile or Page to design frames for use on profile pictures or in the new Facebook camera. Frames that are made in Frame Studio will appear in the cameras of your friends or Page fans. It will also feature the creator's name alongside the effect in the camera as well as in the final posts in News Feed."
Essentially, this is like Snapchat's custom Geofilters option, which they released last February and extends on Facebook's own custom Frames tool which they launched in December. Using the Frame Studio, individuals and brands will be able to create advanced, custom effects options which can be used to either share goofy in-jokes or help boost brand awareness - though in the latter instance, Facebook does note that Frames have to follow Facebook's guidelines and cannot include logos or trademarks unless pre-approved by Facebook.
But AR Studio is the more advanced option - the one which will eventually incorporate tools like those displayed in the examples above, with sharks swimming around cereal bowls.
"AR Studio enables artists and developers to build their own AR experiences such as animated frames, masks, and interactive effects that respond to motion, interactions during Live broadcasts, or third-party data. Approved effects made with AR Studio will be available in the new Facebook camera for use with photos, videos or Live broadcasts. AR Studio is built to enable you to code against the real world; to create experiences that are responsive to the environment around you."
It's worth noting that not all of these advanced options will be available straight away, and that the tool is only being made available in closed beta at this stage. But the potential is obviously huge - through AR Studio, people and businesses will be able to create their own augmented reality experiences, which could provide major opportunities for brands in a range of capacities.
In his keynote speech, Zuckerberg noted that they're working to develop the key elements of their AR experiences, mostly relating how to best place virtual objects in the physical world in a realistic manner. But as they perfect these tools, they'll all be rolled into AR studio for wider use.
It's difficult to even get your head around the many ways these tools could be used - in its first iteration, the following AR elements will be available for use:
- Face Tracker is a real-time computer vision algorithm that tracks the face and allows the creator to make masks that fit and respond to facial movements without writing a line of code.
- Sensor data is used to allow developers to create effects where people can move their phone to pan around a virtual world.
- Scripting APIs allow developers to access and download data, respond to user interactions, and modify the effect in real time.
In addition to this Facebook's also making effects options available for Facebook Live within AR Studio, which can respond to events that occur within a Facebook Live broadcast - "such as how many people are watching and what they are saying in comments".
To demonstrate, Facebook's provided examples of two Live effects - one called 'This or That', which enables broadcasters to choose two options to display on screen, which viewers can choose by using a hashtag.
Facebook's also partnered with GIPHY to create a live effect which enables viewers to let broadcasters know which topics they're most interested in by commenting with hashtags during the live video.
"The most frequently commented hashtags will show up in a ticker across the top of the video - the broadcaster can then select one of those hashtags to cause a GIF related to that topic to pop up on screen, creating a whole new form of interaction between broadcaster and viewer."
These new options will expand on what's possible within a live-stream, which could help alleviate the quality problem that's been seen as a barrier to wider adoption of live-streaming.
Overall, Facebook's new camera platform opens up a wealth of opportunities - and as noted, it may also fast-track Facebook's innovation beyond what Snap Inc. is able to do. While Facebook has faced challenges in keeping up with the cool kids, by opening up the platform to everyone, the cool kids might come to them instead, giving them advanced innovative capacity without having to rely on their own development teams.
The new options could also boost personal sharing on the platform, another area in which Facebook has been working to improve. Last year, leaked reports suggested that sharing of personal updates on the network - people's own thoughts and photos - had fallen by 21% with many users reportedly switching to more intimate platforms, like Snapchat, for such updates.
In his speech, Zuckerberg noted that visual effects tools like this, while they may seem silly, could give people increased reason to share their more mundane moments.
"We're all about extending the physical world online. When you become friends with someone or become part of a community on Facebook, your real relationships and physical communities become stronger. AR is going to help us mix the digital and the physical in new ways, and make our physical lives better. That's why it's so important, and this is just the beginning."
Its early days, and it'll take time for these new tools to develop - and there's also a chance that you could get overwhelmed with so many AR options to choose from. But the tools showcased by Facebook show a huge amount of promise, a huge amount of opportunity.
This is the next level for social media. And Facebook, once again, is leading the pack.
Frame Studio is available today, while you can also apply for the closed beta of AR Studio.