Facebook Chases Snapchat Into Augmented Reality

There’s a reason Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the social platform looks so familiar.

Mark Zuckerberg, left, stands next to Peru's President, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who is using a virtual reality headset while visiting a Facebook exhibition booth in Lima, Peru, in 2016.  (Pablo Porciuncula / Reuters)

Facebook was a “little slow” to leap into the world of augmented reality, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in his keynote address at Facebook’s annual developer conference on Tuesday. But Facebook is now committed to catching up, he said.

Zuckerberg remains "confident" that Facebook will be the company to push AR forward, he said.

But Zuckerberg’s presentation for how Facebook would do that, to anyone who’s familiar with the social-camera app Snapchat, was underwhelming.

We’re still a long way off from the true promise of augmented reality as the next great computing interface that will finally collapse the wall—or, screen, technically—between the digital and physical worlds. For decades, computer scientists have described a future in which digital information might overlay the physical world for anyone with the right device for seeing their reality augmented this way. Such a world could be filled with virtual street signs, historical information about physical landmarks that could pop up in a person’s field of vision as they walk by, 3-D video calling that makes it seem like you’re in the same room with a faraway friend, and much more.

Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook’s foray into augmented reality is a far cry from all that. (And understandably so: The technology just isn’t there yet.) Instead, he described Snapchat-like photo filters and an AR technique called “simultaneous localization and mapping” that might make it possible to hold your camera phone up to see what the room you’re in would look like if it were filled with digital Skittles, or gallons of digital water, or 3-D digital text. Zuckerberg says Facebook will soon offer a suite of tools to some developers who’d like to build apps that can do just that. (Again, Snapchat’s already doing this kind of playful, prototypical augmented reality.) Zuckerberg also emphasized the potential for hiding digital easter eggs in the physical world. Facebook users might one day hold up their smartphones to reveal a digital note from a spouse—something that appears as though it’s stuck to a physical surface like a fridge door, but only when viewed through Facebook’s technology on one’s phone.

Mark Zuckerberg describes how augmented reality could make digital text appear in a photo of a person’s breakfast table. (Screenshot of livestream)

There are two gaps in ambition here, and they stretch out in opposite directions. First, there’s Facebook’s lag in identifying this space as fertile for development before Snapchat did. And, second, there’s the gulf between what’s possible with AR today versus where the technology is eventually headed. Zuckerberg acknowledged the limitations, but—especially given Snapchat’s dominance at the moment—there’s likely a ceiling to the impact Facebook can have until the technology improves. There’s also the cultural baggage to consider: Google Glass, the much-hyped AR wearable that Google first sold as a prototype in 2013 was discontinued less than two years later amid high-profile legal and ethical concerns.

But Facebook’s gamble on augmented reality, belated as it is, may pay off yet. And not just because Facebook is a juggernaut. If developers end up flocking to Facebook the way they did to Apple, Facebook could create “the next major app ecosystem that would work with Facebook’s in-app camera,” as The New York Times put it. That’s certainly Zuckerberg’s long-term goal.

For now, Facebook sees the smartphone as the primary (if rudimentary) AR device. AR may be eventually standard in glasses or contact lenses—and some researchers believe we’ll eventually be able to remove even the sleekest of interfaces. “If you could somehow interface with a computer directly, bypassing all the constraints of your sensory motor capacities, you could make all the feelings and perceptions and desires of a person directly accessible to technology,” Gerwin Schalk,  the deputy director of the National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies, told me in an interview last year. “You could completely eliminate this communication bottleneck and essentially create a symbiotic relationship between technology and the brain.”

Facebook, however, has a deep interest in keeping a thick layer of mediation intact—the platform makes big money off of being the entity that filters your experiences for you. Already, we know what it looks like when Facebook is the go-between for digital interactions between you and your friends and family, and between you and the rest of the information on the web. In the future, Facebook hopes, it may also be lens through which you see the world right in front of you.