Facebook hopes to prove AR is more than selfie filters and games

Facebook hopes to prove AR is more than selfie filters and games

Over the past couple of years, Facebook has been investing heavily in AR and trying to prove it can work not just for games, but for ads in the News Feed or to help brands sell shoes and phones in Messenger. Facebook sees combining digital objects with the physical world, as the perfect way to keep people tied to its services. On Messenger, for instance, not only can you video chat with your friends, but now you can also play AR games with them when the conversation needs a little pick-me-up. And the more time you spend using a Facebook product, be it Messenger or Instagram, the more money the company makes. That's why AR isn't simply an experiment for Facebook -- it's a potential gold mine.

Aside from its acquisition of Oculus in 2014, there's evidence that suggests the company is working on its own augmented reality hardware, too, based on a patent application it filed in 2017 for a pair of camera-centric spectacles. This concept, which Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg first touched on at the 2016 F8 developer conference, indicates the glasses could use a waveguide system to project images and light into the wearer's eyes. It's similar to the technology powering Microsoft's HoloLens, and Magic Leap's $2,300 AR headset. Whether Facebook ever actually launches an AR headset, it's still working to create an augmented reality ecosystem that may only be rivaled by Apple, which has the benefit of having its ARKit baked right into millions of iPhones and iPads.

In 2017, Facebook went all in on AR with the introduction of its Camera Effects Platform, a developer system for augmented reality experiences. Companies could use it to do everything from display nutritional facts on food you're looking at to show your latest running stats on selfies. AR Studio was born at the same time, which makes it easy to build animated frames, masks and other effects to be used during videos, including Facebook Live broadcasts -- all without needing to know how to code.

Like Apple, Facebook's AR hopes are helped by the fact its products are being used by billions of people, and that creates an enticing environment for both developers and brands. What Facebook wants with its Camera Effects Platform and AR Studio is to shape the whole augmented reality medium, not just take it on as a hobby.

With Facebook having 2.23 billion monthly active users on its site, as well as 1.3 and 1 billion on Messenger and Instagram respectively, it gives its AR projects a reach that its Silicon Valley rivals can only dream of. While these numbers clearly show the company's digital prowess, they also highlight a potential landmine. Facebook controls virtually unmeasurable stores of data about its users and controls the flow of that information between itself and countless apps and services.

Snapchat Lenses.

But Facebook isn't the only social media giant that's embracing augmented reality. Snapchat, which has 188 million daily active users, has been building a rather extensive ecosystem that includes letting people create their own AR effects. With Lens Studio, introduced in 2017, the company made it easier for users, brands and advertisers to design and bring 3D objects to life in its app -- like that dancing hot dog no one can ever forget about. Snapchat's goal is to use AR to let users put animations everywhere, including their face and the environment around them.

While the Camera Effects Platform and AR Studio are undoubtedly essential to Facebook's overall AR strategy, since they're going to be the birthplace of its third-party experiences, the company has its own projects to work on, as well. It's now making a big push into multiplayer AR games, starting with Messenger. During our visit to its Seattle office, Facebook gave us a look at some of the titles it'll be launching, such as Kitten Craze, which lets up to six different users play a game where they have to move their head to avoid flying cats. It's like Galaga, except your enemies are kittens, not aliens.

In Just Beachy, another AR game arriving soon on Messenger, the premise is slightly different than in Kitten Craze. Instead of trying to reach a high score, you use your head to "bounce" a beach ball back and forth with people you're video chatting. And you can add AR stickers like sunglasses and hats to your face. Multiplayer titles such as these are being developed in-house by Facebook's Real Time Communication team in Seattle. But beyond making things fun for users, these engineers also have to ensure their games aren't draining your battery and there's no lag as you play them with your friends.