New Facebook Features and Why They Matter

Last week, Facebook held its annual F8 conference where Mark Zuckerberg and team announce Facebook’s latest features and overall strategic focus. What Facebook invests time and resources in tends to set the course for the entire digital ecosystem. The gargantuan social network is about to hit 2 billion monthly users with hundreds of thousands of developers actively creating applications for it. While numerous topics were covered at F8 over the course of two days (videos available here),  here are a few key highlights from my own notes.

Augmented Reality Using Your Existing Phone Camera

While augmented reality itself is not a new concept, by Facebook doubling down on it, it’s about to hit the mainstream. In large part driven by the popularity of SnapChat filters, the Facebook AI team has come up with a similar camera filter concept, only better, thanks to much smarter AI.  To see it in preliminary action, just click on the camera icon within Facebook and select the magic wand.  Before you simply dismiss this as another frivolous time waster, consider the fact that in order to layer a digital effect atop your smiling face, for instance, Facebook must identify exactly where your smiling face is within a camera’s field of vision at any given time, and that requires a deep neural network. The technology behind this and the potential use-cases down the road are where things can get really interesting. Basically, by building neural networks to track people’s movements and read the geometry and context of a scene through your camera lens, effects will be able to move in tandem with the real world.

Basic Use-Cases:

  • You leave an augmented reality sticky note on the menu of a restaurant you’re at, letting your friends know which menu item is the best or which one’s the worst when they hold their camera up to it.
  • You visualize that IKEA couch you liked online in the exact spot in your living room where you want it (including rotation, colour selection, etc.) by pointing your camera at the empty space in your living room and seeing an AR version of it appear.

Socializing Virtual Reality with Facebook Spaces VR

Virtual reality in its modern form (i.e. Oculus era) has been around for a few years now.  While some of the uses are pretty incredible, it suffers from a major drawback in that  it can often feel quite anti-social/isolating. Anyone that has ever put on a modern VR headset and spent more than 15 minutes in there can surely attest to that, I know I can. Along comes Facebook Spaces VR to the rescue.  Essentially, I like to think of it as a “Second Life meets VR meets Facebook Social Graph which then meets AR”. At present time it is only available on the Oculus Rift platform, which is a major drawback. If, however, Facebook makes this much more open, then the possibilities are endless. For now, you and your friends will need to settle for a cartoonish avatar, but eventually that too will improve.

Basic Use-Cases:

  • You’re planning a kayak trip to a remote part of the Amazon River with your best friend (who lives abroad). As part of your trip planning, you decide to meet at a precise GPS location hovering 100 feet above the Amazon River in Google Earth VR to plan out your course. You are both able to see each other (as avatars), draw augmented content, and/or control your arm movements in case you want to point at something while in the virtual space.
  • Instead of video-skyping, you decide to meet your cousin (who lives out of town)  in a VR environment of your choosing (e.g. beer on a beach patio).

Smarter Bots and the Launch of Messenger 2.0

Due primarily to privacy laws and various regulatory obstacles, the big instant messaging platforms such as WeChat have been slow to become true all-in-one service providers here in North America (e.g. payment capability, brand interaction thanks to an open API for businesses, etc.). This is clearly where Facebook would like to go with Messenger 2.0 (keep in mind it also owns the other major global player, WhatsApp). Among the biggest changes, you will see in its newest iteration is the evolution of chatbots created by various organizations (currently 100K developers working on them). Essentially we are in the midst of a “bot” rush, just like the “app” rush of 2007-2008. There have already been over 2B interactions between people and businesses (via their chatbots) on FB Messenger this year. As people get used to interacting on a messenger with their friends and family, the natural extension is interacting with a brand. For digital natives, this is much more natural than going to a brand’s website to find information or even their social media account to ask a question. Why not ask a bot programmed by the brand? An instant response is guaranteed 24-7. Of course, a certain triage is necessary where if the bot deems the question too complex it is passed on to a human. However, think of the efficiencies that can/will be gained as these pick-up in popularity. Want to meet some bots? Hit the new “Discover” tab.

Basic Use-Cases

  • You add the Nike bot as a friend on FB Messenger| You ask it to show you  images of its latest Nike spring collection of 4mm drop running shoes | You choose the ones you like | The bot asks you if you would like to purchase them or see more information | You tell it that you would like to purchase them in a Size 12 | The bot asks you if your address is still X and your credit card number still ends in X (you had linked your payment account in Messenger prior to this interaction). | You say yes | The bot says they will be delivered within 24 hrs. | The bot has learned from this interaction and will remember you the next time you chat with it.
  • It’s 3 am and your cable stopped working for no reason | You add the Rogers (CDN cable company) bot as a friend on FB Messenger | You ask it to reset the signal going to your cable box on the cable provider’s end | The bot say OK hold on (as it resets the signal) | You say thanks as your cable starts working again.

Of course, all of this has a dark side, as does any digital technology these days. Rather than focusing on those in this post, I recommend you start watching Black Mirror on Netflix. Have fun!

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