Facebook Focuses on Augmented, Virtual Reality at F8 Conference

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Facebook showed off how its Messenger app can be used as a payments platform and gave developers attending its F8 Conference demonstrations of where it's headed with virtual and augmented reality.

Facebook F8 Keynote

Someday new technology will let consumers explore new virtual worlds and augmented reality wearing a simple pair of affordable glasses or even contact lenses.

But Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the company’s F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif. April 18 to declare that day is still years away.

“I used to think glasses would be the first mainstream AR form factor we’d get in five years, but in the last few years we’ve seen primitive use cases on phones and cameras,” said Zuckerberg.

“Today we start together and make the camera the first augmented reality platform.” Facebook’s Camera Effects Platform software for developers includes advanced computer vision technology that recognizes objects in the real world and provides the means for developers to augment them with overlays.

Zuckerberg showed a picture of a group of Facebook employees facing what appeared to be a blank wall, but they were able to use the AR software on their phones to see a series of artistic creations. Using AR, someone walking by a museum, might point their phone at the building to get a preview of what’s inside.

“The thing that stood out for me is that Facebook spent over half the morning talking about immersive technology versus other tools and apps related to social media. There were some very cool demos,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau told eWEEK.

Another major focus of the F8 Conference keynote presentations was Facebook’s Messenger 2.0, which now has more than 1.2 billion users worldwide. “We think of Messenger as being like the new social living room for the world, where people can hang out, share, chat, play games or buy things, while still being able to reach nearly everyone, wherever they are,” said Dave Marcus, vice president of Messenger at Facebook.

Messenger is increasingly being used by businesses to connect with customers for everything from ordering products to customer support. Marcus said almost 20 million businesses actively use Facebook every month out of 65 million businesses that have a presence on the social network.

The new Messenger has a Discovery Tab designed to help users find new businesses and connect with artificial intelligence-driven chatbots.

Another new feature, Chat Extensions, lets multiple people chat with the same business at the same time. For example, a group of coworkers could enter their lunch orders at a restaurant site rather than relying on a single designated person who places all the orders before picking it up to get them right. The OpenTable restaurant reservation Web service is one of several sites testing Chat Extensions.

Marcus said that Canadian cable giant Rogers has seen a more than 60 percent improvement in customer satisfaction since it started using Messenger. Financial services sites such as American Express and PayPal are also using Messenger to connect with over a million accounts, he said. 

At F8, Western Union announced a new bot that lets Messenger users in the U.S. send money to recipients in more than 200 countries and in 130 currencies. Recipients can obtain the cash at more than 550,000 global Western Union locations or via bank account transfers. The bot also allows users to send money using real-time foreign exchange rates and provides automated customer support. 

“You can see Facebook is doubling down on Messenger technology,” said Gartner's  Blau. “Facebook is using AI to help developers make their services interact with users in a way that makes their responses smarter and more human-like. Also, smartphones have separated us to some degree, but here they’re bringing people back together where you can use Messenger as a group.”

Facebook also demonstrated Facebook Spaces, a new virtual reality application for its Oculus VR headset. Rachel Franklin, head of Social VR at Facebook, showed how to use Spaces to change Facebook profile photos to assume a new virtual reality identity—everything from new eye color, hairstyle and facial features.

In the demonstration, she showed a group of friends interacting in a VR world, playing games and drawing things for each other. The app currently allows you to invite up to three people to join you in a session.

Franklin told a story about a glitch in an early version of the software to show how real the experience feels. “The avatars got stuck so that two people couldn’t stop holding hands with each other,” Franklin said. “One of the guys said he felt he had to tell his wife what happened. Even with the headset on, it’s still you. It’s an extension of who you are.” 

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...