The world of higher-tech virtual reality is on Facebook's drawing board
SAN JOSE, California — Facebook executives shared some new ideas this week. What if you could go on a faraway virtual vacation just by putting on a headset and sitting in your room? Or what if you could use smartphone's camera to virtually decorate your apartment?
Facebook held its annual conference last week for developers, or computer programmers, and other tech professionals. Everyone was talking about what we can expect with augmented and virtual reality. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company is planning to offer augmented-reality tools in the near future.
Augmented reality involves placing computer-generated images over real-world surroundings. That is, you are looking at the real world through a screen that adds to it. "Pokemon Go" was a phone app and a popular example of augmented reality. Pokemon monsters were placed over real-world settings.
Zuckerberg said new phone-based applications might let you create a 3-D scene from a single two-dimensional photo. Another possible phone app would be "painting" the walls of your house with colorful digital art.
Facebook executives pointed out that the technology is still in its early stages. The "journey to the future of augmented reality is just 1 percent finished," Deb Liu, vice president of platform and marketplaces at Facebook, said.
Zuckerberg believes Facebook's camera feature, when used with the new augmented-reality tools, will make boring chores more fun. For example, you could do the dishes with entertaining digital effects. Of course, it could also make people spend more time looking at the world through their phones, rather than actually looking at the real world.
No Longer Just For Making Calls
Zuckerberg predicts that this new technology could change how people use their phones.
Facebook also launched a virtual world, called Facebook Spaces. It is designed to let people hang out with their friends virtually, using a VR (virtual-reality) headset. The headsets are made by Oculus Rift, a company Facebook bought three years ago for $2 billion.
The new tools and features are impressive. However, Jan Dawson, a technology business expert, said that "most of them won't be in users' hands anytime soon."
That is especially true for the Spaces app. Not many people have Oculus' VR headset. It costs about $500 and needs an expensive computer to make it work.
No Comment From Snapchat
On the same day Facebook announced all this, its rival Snapchat made a similar announcement. Snapchat also wants to offer augmented-reality features. So far, it looks as if Facebook is further along in the virtual-reality race.
"Facebook has the resources to move fast in this area and the audience to spread those features much more widely than Snapchat," Dawson wrote in a brief research note.
Snapchat representatives did not respond to reporters recently when asked for a comment.
Facebook Is Focused
Facebook's focus on smartphones over high-tech glasses or headsets makes sense because so many people already have smartphones, Brian Blau, an industry analyst, said. "People already have cameras and are used to having fun and being creative with them," he said. "This will give people a chance to experience augmented reality in a way that isn't so scary or off-putting."
Ficus Kirkpatrick is Facebook's director of engineering. He said that most people thought it would take 10 more years before augmented-reality tools would be available. But now they realize it will be possible much sooner. He pointed out two important factors. One, smartphones are everywhere and, two, the technology for image and object recognition has gotten much better. These factors have "put us on the course to bring augmented reality," Kirkpatrick said in an interview.
Messenger Kicks It Up A Notch
Facebook also announced several updates to Messenger, its increasingly independent messaging app.
Messenger head David Marcus compared the app to paper phone books with "White Pages" and "Yellow Pages." White-page phone books list the phone numbers of all the people in an area, while "Yellow Pages" phone books advertise the businesses.
He says Messenger is already the new version of the "White Pages," helping people talk to each other. Now, Messenger wants to do the same for businesses, letting companies communicate with their customers, just like the "Yellow Pages."
Messenger will also let people chat with outside businesses as a group. That would, for example, allow groups of friends to share Spotify playlists or to make a restaurant reservation through a table-booking app. The idea is to make things simpler, so you do not have to send a lot of texts and links all the time.