This week I’m attending Facebook F8, the social media giant’s annual global developer conference, in San Jose. Held (almost) every year since 2007, Facebook typically seizes the opportunity to unveil new products and features, and to provide insight as to what direction the company is heading in the future. As per usual, the conference kicked off Tuesday with a keynote from founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and other high level Facebook execs. Here’s my rundown of some of the major announcements made during Tuesday’s keynote, as well as my personal take on them.
Zuckerberg Takes The Stage
Zuckerberg led off the keynote by emphasizing that Facebook’s job in the divided, modern world was moving beyond connecting friends and family, and into the realm of building communities. He acknowledged the vastness of the task ahead, and used the moment to address the recent “Facebook killer” tragedy– expressing his condolences to the family of the victim and reiterating Facebook’s commitment to preventing future tragedies like this from happening again. It was good that he addressed this head-on, although I think he could have done more to acknowledge what a failure this incident truly was on Facebook’s part.
The incident poses an important question in my mind—if Facebook’s AI is really as good as they claim, why didn’t it recognize the gun in the video? Something to think about.
Zuckerberg then pivoted to Facebook’s 10-year roadmap, and specifically to the growing role of AR in the company’s trajectory. He declared that the first Augmented Reality platform was not going to be AR glasses, as many had envisioned, but the camera—which everyone with a smartphone already has access to, and doesn’t require further purchase. That’s very easy to say after the crashing and burning of Google Glass. On that note, he announced the launch of Facebook’s Camera Effects developer platform—which will allow developers to apply for beta access to Facebook’s AR Studio tool (including object recognition, depth detection and precise location capabilities) in order to design their own 3D effects. Their Frame Studio is also available to anyone—no knowledge of coding necessary—which will allow users to upload their own images to create simple overlay filters for photos and videos.
During this segment of the keynote, Zuckerberg took the time to delineate what he sees as the three primary functions of AR experiences. Firstly, augmenting everyday objects in the real world with supplementary information—for instance, leaving a review for a restaurant on the building’s storefront. Secondly, AR allows you to add virtual objects into the physical world—Zuckerberg offered up the example of a virtual chessboard “sitting” on a real table. Lastly, AR can enhance already existing objects—think of the silly Snapchat filters that are already prevalent (dog ears, fake beards, etc). The amount of potential AR uses is vast—by opening the Camera Platform up to developers, Facebook is hoping to expand the ecosystem at a much quicker rate than they could on their own.
Introducing Facebook Spaces for Oculus Rift
Rachel Franklin, head of Facebook’s Social VR division, unveiled the next big announcement—the beta launch of Facebook Spaces, for their Oculus Rift VR platform. Facebook Spaces gives users a place to virtually hang out in avatar form with your Facebook friends and family, wherever in the world they might be. Within this virtual world, users can chat, draw, watch 360 videos, make video calls to non-Oculus users via Messenger, and more. Franklin reiterated Facebook’s belief that VR has the potential to become the world’s most powerful social platform, transcending traditional chat messages by bringing avatar voice and body language into virtual interactions.
While I think Facebook Spaces presents the necessary first step in social VR, there’s an obvious roadblock to it taking off anytime soon—the fact that the average Oculus Rift user at best probably only has a handful of Facebook friends who also own the VR headset. Let’s just hope they happen to be good friends that you actually want to spend time with, or else Facebook Spaces is going to get old really fast. Franklin herself acknowledged that Facebook is just “beginning to scratch the surface” of Social VR—it’ll be interesting to see how it progresses and improves over the coming years, and whether widespread adoption is actually feasible.
I couldn’t help but to think of Second Life a failed attempt to create a virtual world using avatars in fake world. This isn’t entirely the same as you actually know your friends, are sharing videos and pictures the way you may be on Facebook. But the similarities are jarring. Now, it’s over 15 years later, we have millennials and Gen-Y and much better technology. but I’m skeptical about this taking off in the next 5 years.
Introducing Facebook Developer Circles and New Analytics Features
Ime Archibong, Facebook’s director of product partnerships, took the stage to introduce Facebook’s new Developer Circles. Developer Circles is a program that is geared towards allowing developers across the globe to connect, learn, and collaborate together via local “circles”. The program is free to join, and is designed to be a resource for developers of any skill level—from students, to experienced coders. Each local circle will host various hackathons and meetups, with a Facebook group dedicated to the express purpose of carrying on conversation in between such events. I don’t really see how this program could turn out to be a bad thing—it’s a good way for Facebook to give back to the community, and will only aid in further building out their ecosystem.
Ironically, this reminds me of Cisco’s Networking Academy that trains over 1M programmers a year and not just on networking. I wrote about that here.
Introducing Messenger 2.0
All of this industry craziness for messenger as a platform goes all the way to China and WeChat and everyone has been copying and adding to the metaphor. Hence, we have Messenger.
Smart Replies for Pages was also introduced on Tuesday, which will allow Pages to give automated responses through Messenger, on basic, frequently asked questions—business hours, contact details, locations, etc. Facebook says this will alleviate the major pain point of businesses having to manage all the messages they receive– saving time, while still providing the quick service and responses crucial to keeping customers happy. Personally, I don’t see how asking one of these basic questions through Messenger is any quicker than simply Googling it yourself, but we’ll see. Maybe it will prove itself to be more than just a novelty—we’ll see.
Facebook is also touting its new Rich Gameplay features within Messenger—developers are now able to customize their start and end screens, and utilize new APIs geared towards driving connected gameplay. They’ve also made it easier to challenge friends to games by adding a Games tab on the app’s home screen.
The collaboration space is hot and is combining with productivity tools and UC. This is why giants Microsoft with Office 365 and Teams, Google with G Suite and Hangouts Chat, Cisco with Spark, and upstart Slack are investing heavily.
What is unknown is why Facebook is even jumping in because strategically it doesn’t fit.
On Tuesday, Facebook also unveiled some new partnerships and integrations for Workplace, their recently launched social network for enterprises. They’ve integrated with some leading enterprise cloud services (Microsoft, Box, Salesforce, amongst others), which they say will improve workplace collaboration by simplifying the sharing of files and ideas. Facebook also announced that Workplace users can now build bots that enable people to interact with other services and tools inside of Workplace—in groups as well as in chat.
The bots are cool and are a fancy name for workflow but the problem is that an enterprise would need to be “all-in” on Workplace which makes zero sense right now. Facebook is making many of the same mistakes Google made five years ago and it’s like Facebook didn’t even research why it took so long for G Suite to gain traction. The first thing Facebook needs to do is explain to enterprises why this strategically makes sense as IT is reticent in making a major commit to a platform that could get tossed out like many of Facebook’s science projects.
This is a lot to digest, but I would say the main takeaway from Day 1 is that Facebook’s vision for the company moving forward is centered around advancing AR through their Camera Effects Platform, and social VR, through Facebook Spaces. All of this is still in the very early stages, so it’s hard to say how successful they’ll be in these endeavors—I’ll be watching with interest. I think Developer Circles is a nice addition to Facebook’s services, and will be good for their brand. I’m not feeling particularly bullish on Messenger 2.0, especially in regards to bots, but there’s a few new features that could improve user experience. As for Workplace, well, they’re making a lot of mistakes and doing some things well but hopefully it won’t take as long as Google to get it. That’s all for now, but stay tuned for my analysis of Day 2, and the next-generation work Facebook is doing inside Building 8.