Facebook’s key to building communities in divided times: augmented reality

We live in a time when society is divided and work is needed to bring people together, but Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks it has the solution: augmented reality.

Speaking on stage at the company’s annual developer conference F8, Zuckerberg outlined the company’s plan to turn the camera app into a platform that makes it easy for people to build augmented reality experiences, whereby digital objects and information are overlaid onto or used to enhance the physical space.

“AR is going to help us mix the digital and physical in all new ways, and that will make our physical reality better,” said a chipper Zuckerberg, outlining a range of technologies the company had developed to enable augmented reality experiences that go beyond simple Snapchat-style animated filters.

The conference comes in the week that Facebook has been under fire for hosting a video of the apparent killing of 74-year-old grandfather Robert Godwin in Cleveland on Sunday. Zuckerberg took a moment to mention the incident.

“We have a lot more to do here and are reminded of this this week by the tragedy in Cleveland,” he said. “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Robert Godwin Sr … and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”

After a few somber seconds it was back to talk of how technology – particularly augmented reality – can be used to build community.

How exactly does adding digital objects to our physical environments build community? Zuckerberg did not make this clear but hinted that augmented reality encourages people to look up from their screens and interact with others and find common ground – although for now that experience is still mediated by the smartphone screen.

“In the future, technology is going to make us more productive and free us up to enjoy interacting with each other,” he said.

He spoke about three key uses for AR: to display information such as arrows appearing on the streets to give directions; to add digital objects to the real world, in the way that Pokemon Go did, and to enhance existing objects such as your home or face.

One bleak example stood out in Zuckerberg’s presentation: augmented reality would give you the ability to add a second digital coffee mug to an image of a table setting “so it looks like you are not having breakfast alone”. (Community, huh?)

Facebook has developed some clever tools to turn a two-dimensional camera image into a three-dimensional model into which animated effects can be added. As an example he showed an image of a nondescript meeting room that he then filled with digital balls and Skittles (“because the future is delicious”). When viewed through the camera, the digital objects interacted with the physical objects as if they were in the same dimension – so the balls bounced off the walls and the Skittles settled on the floor.


Zuckerberg shows off 3D modeling at #f82017 pic.twitter.com/FBsgxpF8NO

April 18, 2017

The end goal is to shift these capabilities away from the phone and into wearable technology.

“We all know where we want this to go. We want glasses and contact lenses that look and feel normal and overlay digital information over the real world,” he said, adding that you wouldn’t need to have a TV on your wall when your AR glasses could conjure one up on demand. “Instead of being a piece of hardware it’s a $1 app.”

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