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Do we really want to live in Facebook’s new AR world?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out his bold plans for the future at this week’s F8 Facebook Developers conference.

Zuckerberg opened the event by talking about community and acknowledging the recent tragedy in Cleveland. He said that there is “a lot of work to do” and that we have to “work harder” to prevent such things.

You might think that he is referring to the fact that the video in question stayed up too long.

Actually, his vision is more ambitious than that. Through “building communities” on Facebook, he truly believes that he can make the world a better, safer place. He could be overly optimistic. But there is no denying that what started as a glorified photo sharing site has – for better or worse – become much, much more.

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Hail Corporate.

He then went on to introduce what he referred to as Facebook’s “Act Two”, which is essentially the building of an AR platform via Facebook’s camera.

According to Zuckerberg, while we are waiting for glasses or even contact lenses to give us the seamless AR experience we want, we might as well be using the tools we already have: smartphone cameras.

He pointed to existing technologies that serve the three main functions of AR: to add information (e.g. writing text on a photo), to add digital objects (e.g. Pokemon Go) and to enhance real objects (e.g. those wacky face filters).

Zuckerberg’s argument is this: While these things may seem primitive, they are ubiquitous, accessible and they work. So why not run with them for a while? Since the platform is open source, he says that anyone will have the ability to create AR effects for the world to enjoy.

It goes beyond Pokemon or face masks though. In the first example, he shows a picture of a bowl of cereal on table. Since the camera “knows” where the table and cereal bowl is, it can add effects that interact accordingly. Thus, you can fulfil your lifelong dream of having some AR sharks swim around your cereal bowl. Thanks, Facebook!

In the next example, Zuckerberg showed a 2D photo of a room that the camera has transformed into a 3D environment. He then fills the room up with water, bouncing balls and skittles. Why? I’m not sure, but I kind of wish they had come up with a more useful example. Commercial real estate, perhaps?

To be fair, he also presented object recognition that can add “relevant effects” to things. For example, you can add some information about the bottle of wine you just took a picture of “and maybe even a link to buy it”. Hmmm, so we’ll be making ads. That’s great because if there is one thing Facebook needs, it’s more advertising.

Zuckerberg said that people don’t share “mundane tasks” such as “running and changing diapers” enough because they don’t “feel special”. However, with the magic of AR effects, they will.

Yup, I can’t wait to see AR-enhanced baby photos on Facebook. Oversharers rejoice! The mundane is now the magnificent! Watch me change these diapers with this Game of Thrones®©™ filter. Buy the DVD box set now!

AR is going to be killer for games, too. Zuckerberg demonstrated this with a video of a bearded hipster waiting in a doctor’s waiting room with his kids. They have some time to kill, so the hipster pulls out his phone so they can play a tower defence game right there on the waiting room table. People are gonna love kids randomly hitting tables in waiting rooms.

With AR art, Zuckerberg noted that we are going to be walking around “staring at blank walls” which actually have stunning artworks on them. The problem here is screen size. “This Rothko looks fantastic through my 5.5 inch screen”, said no one ever.

Faceboook’s new camera effects will do much more than just analyse information picked up from your camera, too. The AR platform will also allow developers to use your precise location to determine which digital images are displayed. For example, Zuckerberg says that one of things he has always wanted to do is “leave notes for people”. Again, this sounds great for advertising, as he said you can leave a note “telling your friend about the best sandwich at a restaurant”.

Jokes aside, there are no doubt going to be some interesting innovations via the AR platform. However, I think Zuckerberg might be missing the mark in a few places.

In his future, real objects will disappear. Is that really so great? Humans are tactile and we love stuff. Take for example the recent revival of vinyl records. People can download anything they want on mp3 and have thousands of songs on their iPods. Yet they still buy records. It’s partly due to the sound but also because we like to touch things.

Taken to its extreme, the AR world would be an empty one, with digital stuff simply projected everywhere. This Black Mirroresque concept was explored in a recent short film called “Strange Beasts”.

Is that the kind of world we want to live in?

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About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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