With Google and Apple about to put two huge augmented reality platforms, ARCore and ARKit, into the hands of millions of people, AR is set to have its big mainstream moment.
That means plenty of the other big tech companies are going to want in, and it should go without saying that Facebook - which seems to have an interest in everything from virtual assistants to drones to the smart home right now - is among them.
Read this: The future of AR is...
Facebook has been open about its AR ambitions, which is more than can be said for some *cough* Magic Leap *cough* and has gone so far as to say smartglasses are the end goal.
But it's going to take a while to get there. Good thing it's a few billion dollars in its pockets, eh?
It's already starting, blame the sausage
You've probably noticed a tit-for-tat battle between Facebook/Instagram and Snapchat, and it's all about owning your smartphone camera. AR is going to be a big part of this, and every time you put on a funny dog face or a silly AR hat, you're helping the AR agenda along.
Earlier this year, Snap Inc announced it was going a step beyond the basic AR filters with 3D "lenses" that let uses place three-dimensional objects into the real world. On the same day, Facebook announced it was going to launch its own AR camera filters, the classic coffee-cup-on-a-table very much part of the demonstration.
Also read: An investigation into Snapchat's AR glasses
Camera filters might not sound like the augmented reality future we've been wishing for, but, like ARKit and ARCore, they're going to be a significant first step in pushing this technology mainstream.
For example, Snap Inc's disappointing Q2 earnings may have looked a bit anemic, but those numbers also revealed that Snapchat's dancing hotdog filter had been viewed more than 1.5 billion times. While that probably won't have assuaged nervous investors, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and just about anyone placing bets on AR probably like that number.
Snapchat's users are in the millions, Facebook has two billion. Its potential reach is staggering by comparison to its rivals. That funky little sausage is an irrefutable hit, and it's not even that good - imagine what people are going to do with ARKit and ARCore when they arrive.
Facebook wants to put this on your face - because it said so!
But unlike Apple, Facebook is openly telling us it plans to one day put AR on your face, even if it's some while off. Facebook doesn't have much of a history of consumer hardware, the flopped HTC First smartphone, a partnership product, being a discouraging single example. But it has a massive platform used by 2 billion people, and now it also has Oculus VR under its roof, along with some of the industry's leading AR and VR scientists - Michael Abrash included.
In a townhall Q&A, Zuckerberg said the ultimate goal for VR and AR is when it "stops looking like goggles or big headsets, but instead it just looks like normal glasses." The Facebook chief even showed a pair of concept AR spectacles in a demonstration video at F8 this year, while Oculus VR chief scientist Michael Abrash had a few revealing comments of his own.
"Despite all the attention focused on AR today it will be five years at best before we're really at the start of the ramp to widespread, glasses-based augmented reality, before AR has its Macintosh moment," said Abrash at the event.
He went on: "20 or 30 years from now, I predict that instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we'll wear stylish glasses. Those glasses will offer VR, AR and everything in between and we'll use them all day."
And it's not just words and fancy videos. In August a Facebook patent surfaced showing plans for a pair of svelte spectacles that would offer "augment views of a physical, real-world environment with computer-generated elements". The patent was also filed by three Oculus engineers.
This is where we see Apple, Snap and all the other serious AR players headed. Glasses are the end game. Why? Because holding up a smartphone by means of a portal into other worlds just isn't comfortable. It's telling that in Apple's 'Human Interface Guidelines' for ARKit, it picks this out and suggests developers try to keep brevity in mind. "Holding a device at a certain distance or angle for a prolonged period of time can be fatiguing," it reads.
Can it play nice with the rest of the gang?
One of the biggest problems that Facebook has is that it lives on other people's hardware. With ARKit and ARCore now rolling out the door, that means a lot of people who access to Facebook's AR software also have access to Google's and Apple's. What's more, Facebook needs to have a platform that's attractive for developers, which will mean playing nice with other apps.
As we've said many of times before, this is going to be a battle of platforms. No single company will own this space, but there will be behemoths, and Facebook must find ways to keep developers on side and give them reason to not just run off to Apple or Google.
Oh, there's one more thing
Yes, the dreaded word: advertising. If nothing else, augmented reality offers an entirely new dimension to selling us things, and by God will Facebook know it. Ikea is already launching an ARKit app that will let users see what furniture looks like in their room, while Snapchat has found a revenue stream in its sponsored filters. Facebook is slowly growing itself as an e-commerce company, and AR could provide it with a tremendous opportunity.
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