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What F8 2017 Means for Mass Market Adoption of Immersive Technologies

Now that the dust has settled on F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, it’s time to look back and ask ourselves: what do those announcements actually mean for the end consumers?

F8 2017 was held on April 18th and 19th 2017. More than 4,000 people attended the event at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, and more than 3 million worldwide watched the keynote via Facebook Live.

Leading up to F8, I wrote a piece highlighting five key predictions about what we’d discover at the conference. Now, let’s consider the key takeaways related to AR, VR and 360° content and review how they will influence the mass market adoption of those immersive technologies.

Augmented Reality

At last year’s F8, the key focus was on Messenger and, to a certain extent, Live video. This year, the star of the show was Augmented Reality. It was the very first topic in the keynote and clearly the one that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wanted to personally highlight as he kicked off the conference. Zuckerberg is well aware that he has a big role to play in educating people about the changes coming as immersive technologies mature—and he is certainly taking this task very seriously.

He started off by explaining what he views as the three key use cases of augmented reality:

  1. Display information on top of the real world, e.g. putting directions atop the street or a restaurant’s reviews on their storefront,
  2. Add digital objects onto reality, like a virtual chessboard on an actual table,
  3. Enhance existing objects with extra effects, like giving you a glitter beard.

All three use cases are available on our phones today through their cameras. This is why Facebook announced their intention to make the camera “the first augmented reality platform.” That’s what the slide said, but what is important to note is that they are making the camera the first mainstream AR platform.

Indeed, users may not call it augmented reality or understand the technology behind it, but they are already familiar with the Snapchat-like camera effects that Facebook has recently introduced to its four mains apps: Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

At F8, Mark Zuckerberg announced the Camera Effects Platform, aimed at giving artists and developers the power to build their own effects for the new Facebook camera. They are offering two different tools:

  1. Frame Studio, which allows anyone to upload simple, static-overlaid image frames that will appear in Facebook camera to their friends or a Page’s fans.
  2. AR Studio (in closed beta): allows developers to create masks, scripted effects, animated frames and other AR technologies that react to movement, environment or interactions during Live videos.
 The Facebook team articulated a distinction between lightweight AR, requiring only your smartphone and available today, and ‘full AR,’ requiring a head mounted display, such as AR glasses.

Chief Scientist of Oculus Research Michael Abrash described his vision of a mixed reality future: a world, 20-30 years from now, where we will wear stylish AR glasses instead of sporting stylish phones. The distinction between AR and VR will vanish. He sees this as the new wave of virtual computing and it will change everything. Full AR will be realized when we have see-through, always-on, audio-visual AR systems that are light, comfortable, power-efficient and socially acceptable to be worn everywhere. They will enhance our vision and hearing and enable us to transcend time and space.

Impact on Consumers

The augmented reality features that Mark Zuckerberg and his team described are not really new to people with a keen interest in Augmented Reality. However, as always, the mere fact that they are talking about it will help make the technology easier to grasp for ordinary people.

For many, the 360° video of his daughter’s first steps was the first 360° video they ever watched. With it, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the benefits of 360° content and a major use case for consumers: to save and share family moments to be relived at any point in time. It’s been viewed 15 million times so far, since it was posted in December 2016.

Zuck is doing the same thing with Augmented Reality. By using his visibility, he encourages consumers to realize what this technology can do for them and why it will soon become a part of our everyday lives.

To educate users, Facebook places the focus on lightweight AR (available today through smartphones), while painting the picture of what full AR (with glasses), will bring to our lives.

By opening up the camera platform to artists and developers as well as users themselves, they will trigger a proliferation of frames and camera effects created by a long tail of creators, making them ubiquitous and thus, over time, natural.

Virtual Reality

Rachel Franklin, Head of Social VR, came on stage to announced Facebook’s first social VR app, Facebook Spaces, available now in beta on Oculus Rift. It allows users to create a life-like avatar and hang out with up to three friends in a virtual environment, no matter where they are geographically. Together, they can experience 360° photos and videos in VR together, draw in the air with a virtual marker, take selfies with a virtual selfie stick and even call the real world via a Messenger video call.

The Santa Cruz standalone VR unit that Oculus is working on was briefly mentioned but no new version of the prototype was shown.

The recently launched new Samsung Gear VR with controller was also briefly mentioned as an affordable alternative to the more cost-intensive Rift set-up.

Impact on Consumers

Facebook Spaces is Facebook’s first social VR app, but they are not first to market. There are a few interesting social VR apps already available, such as AltspaceVR, High Fidelity, and VRChat. However, with its massive scale and almost universal brand awareness, Facebook has the power to dominate this market. In that respect, it is interesting to note that they are using the Facebook brand rather than Oculus for this product launch. It shows their aspiration to bring a social virtual reality experience to their wide Facebook audience rather than focusing solely on their Oculus user base, heavily dominated by gamers. Facebook Spaces is available to the happy owners of an Oculus Rift, but will also reach casual Facebook users as they can receive a Messenger call from their friends in Facebook Spaces. This will undoubtedly contribute to an increased awareness of (and curiosity about) virtual reality among the larger public.

360° Content

In an effort to stimulate the creation of 360° photo and video, Facebook gave away a free Giroptic iO 360° connected camera to all 4,000 conference attendees. The camera clips on to an iPhone or Android phone and enables users to easily live stream a 360° video via Facebook Live 360°, as well as YouTube and Periscope.

Facebook’s CTO Michael Schroepfer (also known as Schrep) announced two new volumetric Surround 360° camera designs. He explained how the x24 and its smaller counterpart, x6, are capable of creating some of the most immersive and engaging content ever shot for VR. They may solve the 6-Degrees-of-Freedom problem by enabling the capture of content so that the viewer is free to move within the video scene and experience the content from different viewing angles. Allowing users to actually move through 360° videos

Impact on Consumers

Giving away a 360° camera certainly contributed to an increase in consumer awareness of what 360° cameras, 360° video, and 360° photos are. My friends in France started sending me press articles about Giroptic, the French start up that “seduced Facebook’s boss with a 360° camera.” It helped putting Giroptic on the map, but for a lot of people it also brought more awareness of 360° technologies. It is unclear how many of the 4,000 attendees who were given the camera are actually using it on a regular basis. I haven’t personally noticed an increase in the number of live 360° videos that pop up on my Facebook feed. But the press coverage around it will have a bigger impact.

The Surround cameras are far from being on the radar of most consumers today. They will not have an immediate impact on the mass adoption of VR. However, by stimulating content creation, they will have an impact in the mid-to-long term quantity and quality of content available for VR—which will in turn make the purchase of a VR headset a more attractive choice for consumers.

In conclusion, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg once again showed that their power not only lies in their technical capabilities and innovation, but also—and more importantly—in their ability to influence end users into adopting new technologies at a massive scale.

All keynotes and sessions from F8 can be viewed here.

Other technology giants with strong consumer brands have their developer conferences in the coming weeks, let’s see how they in turn contribute to stimulating the mass market adoption of immersive technologies:

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