If last year’s Facebook Developer Conference emphasized AI and connection, this year is intended to be about community, and about using the platform to engage even more broadly and deeply with family, friends and the world at large. As the company closes in on two billion monthly active users, or roughly a quarter of the world’s population, there is nowhere else to go but deep–deep into our physical, commercial, business, family and social lives. Deeper than many of us want, maybe.
Onstage, it seems quaint to remember CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he was when the company was founded well over a decade ago; he’s relaxed, confident, a little off-the-cuff, and, as one audience member pointed out, “now telling Dad jokes”.
But even Zuckerberg’s quips about “the other F8” happening this week (the blockbuster 8th film in the Fast and the Furious franchise)–can’t diminish the fact that as he takes the stage news is breaking that Steve Stephens, the suspect in the fatal shooting of a man in Cleveland, who is alleged to have posted video of the shooting on Facebook—was found dead near Erie, PA. Zuckerberg has to acknowledge that, and then pivot to talking about community. It’s a tough sell.
Moments later, we’re back to what Facebook wants to talk about: the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) products being launched today. The biggest item is what Facebook hinted at last year: Social VR. The product, called Facebook Spaces, launches in beta for Oculus Rift today. Facebook positions Spaces as “a place where users can interact in-person with friends and family in VR, having a fun and meaningful experience, no matter where they are on the planet.”
The beta product looks more like Second Life than real life, but Zuckerberg encourages us to “think of how many things in our lives don’t need to be physical; they can be digital and less expensive.” He’s talking about physical TVs here, and presumably even devices in the home that could be eliminated entirely or controlled in VR, but the experience isn’t compelling. At least not yet.
Like last year’s Messenger announcement, Spaces is going to need to exist in this early, embryonic stage before its potential becomes clear. And it’s going to roll out a bit like the early Internet; there will be a lot of skepticism and rumors of its demise before people figure out just what to do with it.
But I’m convinced that whether or not Spaces turns out to be a demonstrably good product, mixed reality, whether VR, AR or some other R, will be as ubiquitous in 10 years as the Internet is today.
The next announcement was the new Camera Effects Platform, or, more to the point,
Snapchat filters. The key here is that in launching Camera Effects, Facebook is doing a few things: opening up filters to the developer community, reminding developers of the depth of their AI leadership, and explicitly claiming Effects as a first step toward true augmented reality. (Related: trying to suffocate Snapchat). Like emoji, filters are pretty vapid on their face, but have the potential to attract younger users and annotate the physical world with digital content—a huge boon for commerce of all kinds.
The rest of the news was fairly straightforward, but I’ve listed it here for convenience:
- Messenger — new features and tools
- Workplace —new integrations and partnerships
- Developer Circles — new program launched to create locally-organized communities for developers
- Facebook Analytics — automated insights uses advanced machine learning
- Identity Tools — improvements to Facebook Login and Account Kit
- Games — Rich gameplay features.
Finally, a few takeaways, as we close out day one:
- Facebook can’t ignore the fact that being a part of daily life means being a part of all the messy and sometimes ugly complications that entails. As a result, all the talk about community, especially in the wake of today’s news, sounded less idealistic than propagandistic.
- AR and VR are going to be huge. That said, they will also be generally awful for a while until compelling content comes along, they can scale meaningful experiences and people start building useful apps.
- That’s why almost every speaker kept repeating, “We’re only 1 percent of the way there” (toward AR/VR/AI) as if it were a mantra.
- For a company of Facebook’s size and clout, the focus on “Camera Effects” seemed too reactive toward Snapchat.
- I really would have liked to hear something about news verification in the keynote—omitting it felt like a dodge to me. [Update: there was a later session I missed, so will watch the replay and revisit this]. This isn’t just an issue of “fake news”. Verification and authority algorithms will be critical to a successful 3-D future. How else will we know that we are actually interacting with the people we want to in VR? (Imagine the consequences if we or our friends are phished/abused/hacked using our avatar.)
To sum it up: this morning’s keynotes felt like good progress within a disjointed story, and the product of far too many cooks. As strong as the company is from a technology standpoint, it generally falls short at telling its story cohesively and authentically. That’s hard enough for a public company–any company–but much harder given how entrenched Facebook is with our daily lives. Fundamentally, its actions need to match its vision; to build community, it needs to give as much as it gets.