When Facebook bought Oculus and their VR technology, it was only a matter of time until they turned it into a social platform. Facebook announced plans to do so this week at their F8 Developers Conference, making it clear that both virtual and augmented reality is how Facebook will define their future, in accordance with their 10-year plan.
The VR world is called Facebook Spaces. First shown off last October, Facebook is now releasing it as a beta for Oculus Rift. It’s a glorified chat room, at least for the time being — up to four people can join a virtual space in the form of customizable avatars. From there, you can do a bunch of virtual things like take virtual selfies and look at virtual scenery. The avatars are powered by an emotion engine, which can use cues from your motion and voice to make your avatar act accordingly. The avatars aren’t yet capable of displaying sadness or anger, because everyone’s happy all the time in virtual Facebook land.
And it is virtual Facebook land. In addition to the social interactions, your Facebook feed content will also be available, so you can see all of those weird videos and memes your uncle posts on a virtual theater screen. If you need a change of scenery, the promo video shows how it’s possible to jump from virtual location to virtual location, even real ones like the interior of someone’s new apartment — in reality, a fully realized feature like this is a ways off, especially with 360-degree cameras far from hitting the mainstream.
But, VR takes you out of the real world completely, and you can’t avoid the real world for all that long. That puts a ceiling on how useful, widespread, or transformative the technology can be. Augmented reality — using screens or technology to overlay virtual objects on the real world — does have that kind of potential.
At the outset, that’s going to look like Snapchat, or Pokémon Go. Facebook’s already done the former, cribbing all of Snapchat’s features including virtual filters like masks. All that’s integrated with the Facebook Camera already, and at the conference, Mark Zuckerberg talked about how that camera will be able to tell exactly where you’re standing and what you’re looking at, enabling context-aware filters (and data for advertisers, presumably, as with Snapchat). There’s also the Yelp scenario — seeing restaurant or individual menu item reviews by simply turning your screen toward those things.
It’s harder to get excited about augmented reality, because the hardware isn’t there — no one wants to hold up a smartphone every time they want to use an AR feature. Ironically, the hardware did exist not too long ago — it was called Google Glass, and it was so unpopular that Google buried the product and turned it into an enterprise gadget. The same concerns about Google Glass — deleterious effects on actual social interactions and that wearing a face computer has privacy implications for those other than the wearer — figure to be true for anything Facebook might make, too.
It’s going to get wilder. Facebook is also getting some heavy duty research help to develop ways to post things onto to Facebook any faster. Because your fingers aren’t fast enough to type for Zuckerberg’s liking, Facebook is working on brain scanning technology that would allow people to communicate simply by thinking. More intriguing, they’re working on making it possible to understand speech through touch — it sounds bizarre, but they’ve already got the tech working in a limited capacity. Eventually, that could be a step toward one person speaking in one language and the other hearing (in this case feeling) the words in their language — granted, that would also require enormous leaps forward in machine translation.
Of course, that would require giving Facebook access to your thoughts in some capacity, which maybe you don’t want to do. After all, it’s important to remember what the point of all this is — ads. F8 is a developers conference, not a consumer showcase. Facebook’s paying customers are advertisers, and these announcements exist to show off the ways in which those customers can benefit just as much from the transaction. The end, as always, is to put more targeted ads in front of your face — everything else is salad dressing to make the whole thing more palatable.
You can probably imagine a future in which augmented reality glasses shower the real world with digital ads. This is the endpoint of Facebook’s trajectory — to know as much as possible about your past, present, and future, so they can guide you into the loving arms of marketing departments.
As it turns out, George Orwell wasn’t quite right. If you really want a vision of the future, imagine a boot ad flashing in a human face – forever.