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Facebook | F8 conference previews latest in AR and VR

Who remembers Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?

I’d imagine your first thought is the glorious 1971 feature film in which, having somehow snaffled a golden ticket at the last minute, Charlie Bucket and his (until recently bedridden) Grandpa are taken on a tour of the latest in confectionary heaven by an enigmatic candyman played by Gene Wilder. Augustus Gloop gets stuck in a pipe after falling in the chocolate river, Veruca Salt disappears down a furnace chute while coveting some golden eggs and Charlie himself nearly comes a cropper after secretly tasting the fizzy lifting drinks.

The F8 conference is pretty much the same thing for Facebook developers, only Mark Zuckerberg and friends take it in turns to play the Wonka role as they outline their never-seen-before products and plans. This year’s event took place in San Jose in April. The main topics were Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). The camera on your phone is the window to these brave new worlds.

PICTURE: The F8 Conference (Creative Commons)

The advance of digital and social media has trumpeted the notion that “everyone is a creator”. However, most of the content that ‘everyone’ creates has been terrible and therefore traditional media outlets still dominate the space. But, as the means of production improve, the power will shift. This year’s F8 was another step down that road.

Facebook has bet big on AR (graphics overlaid on images of the real world). Their updates mean you could go to an event, write a review and pin it to the side of the venue so that people visiting the venue could access it through their phones.

Manchester United has already moved into the AR space. At F8 it was announced that the English Premier League football club had partnered with Facebook to showcase something called Camera Effects. According to the press release, this would allow the “Facebook community the power to create a full spectrum of visual effects using the Facebook camera, from simple frames to interactive AR experiences.” The example offered saw United fans celebrating a goal in a pub. As they cheered, Manchester United branding and ticker-tape came down and all the match statistics appeared.

VIDEO: Manchester United's new Camera Effects, supported by Facebook

It seems certain that clubs and right-holders will get creative around the new 3D filters and overlays that were also showcased. You could certainly see spectators benefiting from overlaid information at grounds – but only if UK stadia get with the programme by installing WiFi.

If this all sounds a little like Snapchat on steroids, well, that is because it is. Having created Instagram Stories to compete head-on with the Millennials’ favourite new platform, F8 suggested that Facebook would leverage its brains and brawn to further beat Snapchat down.

Another major announcement was Facebook Spaces, a product extending the realm of VR (images entirely created in graphic form, think cartoons). Here you can hang out and interact with your friends in the same VR environment. If it takes off, you can see rights-holders using this product to give “virtual access” to their stars. Or a broadcaster could have its punditry team “joined” by members of the public.

It might sound far-fetched, but many modern relationships are started or/and maintained via digital means. This just goes a step further.

PICTURE: Facebook is placing a heavy emphasis on AR and VR (Creative Commons)

The reaction to F8’s heavy emphasis on AR and VR has been mixed given that, despite all the flashy demos, no one has unequivocally proved the user demand or business case. However, Facebook must have had a reason for shelling out $2bn for VR firm Occulus Rift in 2013. It was seen as a gamble at the time and nobody was really sure how the social media giant would make use of its acquisition. Now Facebook has pivoted and its approach to VR appears to be about doing away with unwieldy headsets, thereby making VR more shareable and social. 

Another major move at F8 concerned Messenger, Facebook’s second most popular product with a billion users. The model is WeChat, a Chinese app that is much more than just sending instant, free texts. The presentations suggested that the new Messenger will look to manage your communication AND your purchases on, say, a day out. Sounds like heaven for a venue operator. Part of this process will rely on chatbots (automated but intelligent systems that reply to questions you ask).

There’s more. The ability to create GIFs (short, normally funny, looping video for social media) from Facebook Live streams will make clubs and broadcasters happy. Meanwhile, a new raft of easy-to-understand multichannel dashboards will provide the commodity everyone craves – data.

Looking further ahead, Facebook declared at F8 that the company is looking at technology that will allow users to “type with their thoughts” and “hear through their skin.” I kid you not.

However, on the flipside, reports of the imminent release of an everlasting gobstopper and Scrumdiddlyumptious bar proved wide of the mark.

Maybe next year.

Richard Clarke is a digital and social media consultant.  He holds the distinction of having run the social media accounts at major football clubs in the Premier League and MLS having worked for EPL club Arsenal and MLS club the Colorado Rapids. @MrRichardClarke

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