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Facebook’s Bet on Augmented Reality Includes a Billion Beta-Testers

Augmented reality was one of the big themes of Facebook’s f8 developer conference in San Jose, California, this week — and that’s despite the fact that Facebook is not in the business to build an augmented reality headset. Not yet, anyway.

“I used to think that glasses were going to be the first mainstream augmented reality platform,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his keynote speech at the event Tuesday. But consumer-ready augmented reality (AR) glasses may still be years away. In fact, on Wednesday, Oculus Research chief scientist Michael Abrash estimated that we won’t see any such devices for at least another 5 years. “It could take 10 years or even longer,” to get the technology just right for extended daily use, Abrash cautioned.

However, Facebook’s executives believe that consumer-ready augmented reality (AR) devices already exist, and are in fact being used by billions of people. Modern smartphones are capable of playing AR games like Pokemon Go, as well as enhancing people’s photos and videos through filters and digital effects, Zuckerberg said Tuesday.

Facebook added a camera and a growing number of filters and effects to its apps in recent months, something Zuckerberg called “phase one” this week. And behind the scenes, the company has been working on more advanced AR, capable of recognizing individual objects in videos, blending the real world with animated objects, and creating 3D scenes from 2D photos. “We are going to make the camera the first augmented reality platform,” Zuckerberg said.

To be fair, Facebook isn’t the only company that approaches AR this way. Competitor Snapchat, which Facebook has been copying on various fronts in recent months, also is putting the camera front and center, and has been developing ever-more-complex filters for its users. Just this week, Snapchat launched what it called “world lenses,” live video effects that include the ability to plant virtual flowers on the ground, and then have them behave like real objects in the video.

These effects are very similar to the type of augmented reality filters Facebook showed off this week. However, there is a key difference in the way these two companies approach this type of playful AR. Snapchat is for now developing all of its lenses in-house. Facebook on the other hand opened up camera effects to developers, giving them the ability to build their own photo frames, face masks and more.

That’s a pretty smart approach towards AR. Instead of waiting for headsets to evolve to a glasses-like form factor that will be accepted by consumers for daily use, Facebook is hitting the ground running, giving developers early access to this technology to explore what’s possible and seed its AR platform with apps and effects. All the while, it is also giving consumers an early taste, letting them experience AR with devices they are familiar with, and collecting tons of data to improve its own algorithms.

Facebook is being used by some 1.15 billion people a day, and Facebook-owned Instagram now has 200 million daily active users for its lens-heavy Stories feature alone. All of those users are essentially beta testers for Facebook’s augmented reality ambitions, perfecting the company’s technology long before they’ll be able to buy a pair of AR glasses.

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