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.
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.