Facebook’s Next Big Bet: Augmented Reality

Facebook’s next big bet is on an emerging field of technology known as augmented reality.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Tuesday that the social networking giant is debuting a new platform—essentially a suite of developer tools—that coders can use to build augmented reality apps on top of Facebook’s core service. Zuckerberg made his comments during Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose.

Augmented reality is a type of technology in which digital graphics are overlaid onto the physical world, as exemplified in the hit mobile game Pokémon Go. Although Facebook is pushing into virtual reality through its Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the social networking company has thus far not indicated that it was working on AR tech.

Unlike companies such as Microsoft (MSFT) with its HoloLens AR headset and Snapchat (SNAP) with its freshly debuted glasses that overlay flashy graphics on pictures, Zuckerberg said Facebook (FB) wants to focus on incorporating AR on smartphones.

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Zuckerberg said he once believed people would use AR technology through high-tech glasses. However, recent “primitive use cases” like Pokémon Go and the rise of face filters amid other forms of graphical enhancements to photos have changed his mind.

Now, Facebook is pushing AR as a way for developers to build more compelling Facebook-powered apps for mobile phones. In one example of an AR app, Zuckerberg showed how people can leave digital notes on their refrigerators, which can only be seen when one views the fridge through a phone’s camera.

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In another example, Zuckerberg demonstrated how people can leave special digital messages on the tables of their favorite dive bars. In this example, the digital message was designed to resemble what it might look like if someone scrawled one’s name on the table using a knife.

“As silly as these effects might seem, they give us the ability to share what matters the most with us on a daily basis,” Zuckerberg said.

The new AR developer platform is only available to a few coders under a testing period. Facebook did not say when the product would be released.

The platform is similar to Google’s (GOOG) Project Tango toolkit for coders to build AR apps, although Google’s initiative requires specialized 3D motion trackers and depth sensors to be installed on Android-powered phones. Zuckerberg only discussed Facebook’s AR software, and did not mention custom smartphone hardware or whether the company is working with smartphone manufacturers on the new platform.

Additionally, Zuckerberg said he wanted to “set expectations” that Facebook’s AR ambitions “will take a while for it to develop.” The CEO’s comments appear to be a way to hedge against the possibility that AR does not catch on with mainstream consumers as fast as Facebook would like.

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