News | 20-Apr-2017

Facebook invites developers to help it create leading AR platform

Ben Evans, a partner at Andresseen Horowitz (aka a16z) recently gave a presentation titled - Mobile is Eating the World. If the title sounds familiar that's because it is. Ben’s colleague and a16z founder Marc Andreessen penned a now infamous article, Software is Eating the World for the Wall Street Journal in 2011. In Mobile is Eating the World, Ben highlights how new technology generally follows an S-Curve from creation to deployment before inevitably a new tech trend kicks off. PC’s initially saw slow growth as they moved from a “crazy idea” to a “frenzy” and eventually “scale” before they plateaued and we shifted to a new technology, mobile phones. It has been evident for a while that the mobile phone, and in a stricter sense the smartphone, have also now plateaued. It’s been a decade since the first iPhone and while mobile technology has come a long way since then, we’re still using relatively the same thing we were 10 years ago, albeit more powerful. 

Ben’s insight is important to grasp when considering the next paradigm shifting technology. Of the many candidates in play predominately blockchain, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, none are really emerging as the next big thing. 

That could all be about to change.

Those who use one of the Facebook-owned mobile apps - Instagram, Messenger, Whatsapp and Facebook, would have noticed recently there as been a move toward putting the camera at the heart of your experience (which wasn't very well received on Whatsapp). At first this appeared to be Facebook mimicking Snapchat with stories and filters, but in reality, it runs much deeper.

Earlier this week at Facebook’s developer conference, F8, Mark Zuckerberg outlined Facebook’s ambition to be the leading augmented reality (AR) platform. To aid this they have created a developer platform that has launched in beta, opening up the creation of experiences to developers around the world. Soon users will discover thousands of new filters and augmented experiences they can play with. These include the ability to leave virtual notes for individual people, public pieces of virtual art and a whole host of games that can be viewed or interacted with through the Messenger app.

While the stickers and stories may look more like a swipe at stealing the youthful Snapchat generation than a major breakthrough in AR, they should be considered with the aforementioned technology S-Curves in mind. Underlying all of this is a strategy to own AR. What really matters is engaging users in entertaining ways that help drive behaviour change, improve the AR experience and get developers working with the platform - where users are, developers will follow. Ultimately it’s about creating a paradigm shift that will, in turn, change the way we interact with the world around us. It’s about enabling new hardware and wholly new experiences.

In terms of the AR space in general, we already know that both Google and Samsung have filed for smart contact lens patents. Apple are likely to be working on their own AR platform and hardware - we’ve already seen rumoured leaks of the next iPhone with spaced dual cameras which enable better 3D mapping and Tim Cook talking up the potential of AR. 

Now is as good a time as any to start thinking about the impact of AR across industries. The first order effects are easy enough considered, but things get really interesting when considering the second and third order effects. 

One example of this is the consideration of the screen. As AR hardware improves, will there be a need for screens of any sort? Instead of hanging a TV in your living room you could map it to the wall you like, or take it with you as you clean the house. Simply put on a pair of glasses or contact lenses and watch whatever you like, wherever you like, all the while someone in the same room is watching something else. In the workplace, gone could be the laptop and monitor, the way we visualise information on a flat screen could be replaced with insights we could walk around and interact with using gestures - something Microsoft has been investing in with the Hololens. 

In a world devoid of physical screens there may be opportunities around virtual real estate. As companies geofence locations to either serve up adverts or offer unique entertainment of some sort. We might consider switching off the screens in Leicester Square, with advertising companies paying a platform provider who would, in turn, rent the geolocation. It opens up questions about how we value the freedom of people, how and when will they be subjected to promos and adverts? Could one be expected to pay a premium subscription to the platform provider, in this case, think Facebook, to avoid seeing adverts when using the platform to explore a new environment? 

Given this, there will be a massive opportunity for personalisation. Every user in a store could be seeing different promotions, every passerby of a billboard might see a different advert. Will our systems be smart enough to give each person a really smart, personalised experience through advertising and in-store, when in reality we’re still trying to nail personalisation on the web?

What then happens to our countrysides or sacred buildings and landscapes? Similar questions arose during the Pokemon Go frenzy in 2016, and that was on a small scale. There may be a need for a centralised governing body that protects these areas, creating digital-free zones. 

Those are just a few talking points around the replacement of screens. In reality, we need to start having conversations sooner rather than later about the implications of an AR led world. Then, if we really wanted to get carried away, we could talk about the work Elon Musk is doing with Neuralink - could we visualise our thoughts through a pair of glasses or contact lens? And Facebook recently announcing that they too are working on brain-computer interfaces. Anyway, that’s a conversation for another day.