Facebook is Leading the Immersive Web

For now.

Image courtesy of Facebook

I arrived at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, expecting major announcements across the company’s entire line of products and services, and they didn’t disappoint. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was a two-day program that put immersive content front and center.

Last year’s F8 showed serious progress in both VR and AR: a continued commitment to the Oculus product line; the introduction of Facebook Spaces; and a hard lean-in with augmented reality. The AR was a clear shot across the bow at Snap, staking out their claim in the “camera as next operating system” land rush. But as far as VR went, it seemed like Facebook was still feeling its way through it, framing VR as the future, or a set of experiments.

Not so in 2018. This will be remembered as the year when Facebook productized, commoditized and democratized immersive content. The XR developments on display at F8 ranged from deceptively simple to mind-blowingly advanced. All were woven together with polished products, unified technical underpinnings, and a common narrative that says, unapologetically: 3D is the interface. No more “hey, check out this cool thing we are playing around with.” Now it’s “developers, 3D is the new user paradigm, and here are the tools to make things for it.” Immersive content is poised to hit a tipping point, with Facebook at the center of the action.

A billion or more of Facebook’s users will be able to experience immersive content via a slate of features and products shown at F8:

  • AR in Messenger, Instagram and Facebook Lite. Facebook has expanded the reach of its AR offerings to include these other services and apps, extended the feature set for AR studio (including Sketchfab integration), and opened up filter capabilities to select brands in a closed beta.
  • 3D Posts. Facebook officially introduced 3D Posts, first shown at Oculus Connect 4 last fall, which allow anyone to create 3D and upload it into the feed as glTF files. (Be still my heart). And with enhancements to the Graph API, you can host 3D content on your own site and share it on FB with a few simple meta tags.
  • Integrating the Feed and AR. In a jaw-drop moment at the keynote, the company showed a 3D Post featuring a product display that could be dragged from the feed into the real world, by opening the camera and putting the product on a surface. You like the way that mixer looks on your kitchen counter? Just click a button and buy it.
  • React 360. Facebook continues to bring its React framework into 3D via the React 360 project — a repositioning of what used to be called React VR, to emphasize that the application framework is powering interactive 360 content with photos and videos at its heart. Using React 360, companies like Vizor make it easy to create and share immersive stories, product presentations, real estate walkthroughs and the like, to any device.
  • Oculus Go. At long last, there is a self-contained, portable, lightweight, and truly affordable VR headset. Oculus Go is basically Gear VR but without the need for your phone. At US$200, and with over 1,000 titles at launch, this could be the VR headset for the masses, and one that some of us have been dreaming about for a while now.

Beyond the product announcements, the company showed that it’s not standing still when it comes to advancing the state of the art, including new computer vision tech and immersive social features.

FB didn’t just go broader with AR; they went deeper, showing technical previews of hand tracking input, body tracking, and background segmentation, that is, the ability to mask out the background of the camera image and put your body against any other background. It’s like a green screen without the green screen. All from your phone.

Innovation continues in Facebook Spaces. I saw a great live demo of creating Quill drawings that show up instantly within Spaces. And Facebook demoed a proof of concept of “VR reconstructions” that use photos in the feed to generate 3D pointillist-rendered environments. Experimental? Ya. Cool? Totally.

Immersion at Scale

Facebook is all about scale. To reach everyone, the company has been promoting a strategy of incorporating 3D into all delivery venues: web, mobile, and new types of affordable VR hardware like Oculus Go. This could represent a dizzying array of options, but the company has managed to unify things by adopting industry standards like glTF for sharing content, and making their various services interoperable. They also continue to invest in the tools, and work with strong partners like Unity to foster a vital content creation ecosystem.

The common element among these developments appears to be — and this is my own take, not stated company policy — a core belief that the digital experience is going 3D, from simple augmentations of the face, body and hands via the camera, to fully immersive VR worlds that take us to new places, solo or together with friends.

Facebook has created the first global platform for sharing and experiencing immersive content. This is the kindling that could set off a wildfire of self-expression, social interaction, content creation and brand marketing, powered by amazing technology that will reach billions. This could be the actual V1 of the Metaverse.

Game On

As big as Facebook is, the Web is even bigger. Other players surely aren’t standing still. There is hearty competition for consumer attention, and a whole world of business to business immersive content besides. In the browser realm alone, there are VR and AR-capable browsers being developed by not only Oculus, but Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and even a new browser kid on the block called Supermedium. These companies aren’t standing still. And holy cow, Microsoft Build and Google I/O are next week! Who knows what we will see?

As the digital world goes immersive, we can expect many of these players to elevate their game. And when we begin to deliver immersion at scale, we will see the need for other services, like the AR Cloud (pro tip: read everything written on this by Ori Inbar), and search services like SVRF, which allow discovery and sharing of immersive content among all the services, whether on web, mobile AR, or in-headset social applications.

The very standards that Facebook is driving in order to bring their offerings to scale will also help level the playing field for others who come along; such is the way of the Web. F8 was a watershed for immersive content, and Facebook is in definitely in the driver’s seat as we push toward the Metaverse.

Facebook is leading the Immersive Web.

At least for today.

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