SAN JOSE, Calif. — Mark Zuckerberg has seen the future — augmented reality through a camera lens, a virtual-reality app called Spaces and a new Messenger that makes everyday tasks simpler.
The Facebook co-founder and CEO heralded these cool new features as playful, amazing and with a higher purpose: To foster stronger communities in a society that’s divided.
But for the social network’s nearly 2 billion users, it’s not clear which of the upcoming innovations will become more than gimmicks that keep them from straying to rival social platforms — and which, if any, will meaningfully change their lives. And if they do, it may not be in a good way.
The news leading up to the Facebook CEO’s opening speech showed how very wrong even innocuous product launches can go: Cable channels and news sites were focused on the “Facebook killer,” a murder suspect who had broadcast his intent, killing and confession, on Facebook video — a previous innovation designed to share celebrations like weddings and birthdays.
“Before the election and before all the fake news scandals, there was the utopian view of how Facebook is making the world more open and more connected and lifting people up and benefiting them. Now with some of the tragedies around Facebook Live, that vision has been really tarnished,” says Greg Sterling, contributing editor of tech industry blog Search Engine Land.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the killing at the outset, saying “our hearts go out” to the family and friends of the victim’s family. The company’s annual developers conference, however, was intently focused on the great work to come, not the sticky work of fixing what’s been released.
For about 80 minutes, he laid out an online experience in which cartoon avatars, 3-D stickers and augmented reality “(extend) the physical world online.”
Soon, says Zuckerberg, everyday life will get an augmented reality jolt in three ways: by using the Facebook camera to display information on the real world, add digital objects in it and and enhance existing objects.
Tech analysts say they will eventually become staples of consumers’ Facebook experiences. It just will take time.
“I can see brands doing this as a splashy novelty thing to get a lot of attention but we’re still a ways off from any kind of mainstream experience of augmented reality,” says Sterling.
AR has the potential, at least, because the hardware infrastructure exists to make that more widespread.
Your friends (and you) become cartoon avatars in Facebook virtual reality
The question is will people build software for an AR experience? “It’s not an immediate thing,” Sterling says. “The VR stuff is very powerful interesting and will have an intense and devoted user base, but you need a lot of hardware to make that work.”
For Facebook, the innovative playbook has been staking a claim to being a “first or second mover” to entice developers to build applications for the platform before they hit big with the mainstream, says Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. Sometime that risky strategy works, and sometimes it doesn’t, he says.
“Facebook has many times taken very aggressive stances on features and completely whiffed,” says Moorhead. “I don’t think they know exactly what will work. But they are not afraid to try it. In fact, when you look at Spaces, this is Second Life 15 years later.”
“You should all be very skeptical but not dismissive. It took tablets 20 years from the first one to become mainstream,” Moorhead says.
Among the major announcements that could change the way you use Facebook:
— Facebook opened up its camera platform to developers, an attempt to get thousands of programmers to build the killer app that will get people attached to a digitally altered reality they may have experienced on Snapchat or Pokemon Go, but in Facebook style.
— Facebook launched a social virtual reality platform for owners of Oculus headsets and controllers, which allows users to create avatars based on their photos who then interact with each other in virtual spaces.
— Facebook’s Messenger app expanded the way users of the popular texting app can chat with robots — an expansion of the chatbot platform Facebook launched to much fanfare last year.
Facebook Messenger takes another swipe at chat bots
These launches don’t always pan out, despite the occasional hoots and cheers from the audience. The chat bot platform, which promised a future smoothed by painless interactions with all-knowing robots, underwhelmed and disappointed. While many in numbers (100,000), the bots failed to gain traction with users.
Facebook Messenger honcho David Marcus addressed these bumps Tuesday. “I’m glad we called it a beta,” Marcus quipped of last year’s launch.