Augmented reality (AR) is still many years from achieving its true potential; several years behind virtual reality (VR) by most accounts. However, that hasn’t stopped innovators working towards a grand ambition with a variety of both hardware and software, from the likes of Google Glass to Pokemon GO. While the latter was a gimmick (arguably a near-identical experience with the AR mode turned-off) Niantic offered consumers a glimpse of the potential in the same way the Nintendo DS did with consumer touchscreen devices. The trouble is now, it seems that populist ambition is working harder than the innovators can support it.
Despite popular belief, Facebook isn’t an inherently evil company. Yes there may be questionable ethics regarding privacy and the sale of personal data, but these are barriers broken by the desire to deliver a product that consumers wish for with an equal, opposite reaction weighed by return on investment. Finance which is then often used to fund the race for the next goal. At F8, San Jose, today however, Facebook’s biggest announcement was not how they will bring something new to the public – breaking down barriers in the way that Facebook Spaces (launched in beta today) could potentially do – but how they plan to kill a competitive product.
One of the handful of announcements for mobile social content at the event today was the Camera Effects Platform; an AR-inspired image overlay technology for photos and video content. If that sounds like Snapchat, that’s because it is. In fact, for a casual user of image-based social media, there’s very little distinguishable difference between Facebook’s effort and Snapchat bar the user interface (UI). A better arranged menu system and a few big licenses (Mass Effect: Andromeda showcased during the keynote this morning and Guardians of the Galaxy useable on the showfloor demonstration) do not a unique product make.
So why is this cause for concern? Namely, because Facebook subtlety stated that, as a company, it won’t be doing anything with the product. Instead, through its ARstudio platform, the company will be ‘inviting’ the development community to create their own overlay images and animations. Facebook has invested heavily in AR technology – researching facemapping, environment scanning, object recognition and other previously elusive conditional requirements for AR – to create something decidedly trite. But worse still, the company is using it to encourage others to produce content that could potentially wipeout a competitor for it.
During Facebook’s keynote it was easy to acknowledge how impressive the technology was, but the end use case doesn’t seem to marry with the initial vision. Where’s the life assisting products? Map overlays, diary reminders, real-time friend/colleague location marking, traffic updates and translation software. Even basic applications such as geo-tagging and interior design overlays seem to have been overlooked in favour of putting funny hats and beards on people.
Of course, this is a very pessimistic view. The fact remains that Facebook has now begun investing in AR research and as such a lot of the barriers to achieving a working platform for the technology will almost certainly fall a lot quicker than without these resources. It simply feels as though such a grand push for new technology could’ve been unveiled with a much more meaningful showcase than a not-too-subtle act of corporate aggression.