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At Facebook's F8 2017 event, the unveiling of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology caused quite a stir.
Whilst the AR features showcased are mostly still in private beta, the VR stuff is out there now, though admittedly available to a more limited audience of Oculus Rift owners.
In this article, I'm going to look at some of the key functionality and what it could mean for marketers.
AR: The Camera Effects Platform
Snapchat on steroids gives creative power to the consumer
The best way to think of the Camera Effects Platform is as Snapchat on steroids. Take a look at the BuzzFeed video below and you'll see the platform takes the idea of Snapchat lenses and extends this functionality to other objects and parts of the scenery.
The video is compelling because it shows how photo and video sharing might be taken to the next level. One can imagine the creative lexicon of Facebook and Instagram users expanding quickly.
My first thought was: 'What does this mean for Photoshop?' Creative content production is becoming ever easier. With the Camera Effects Platform open to developers, these effects will multiply. Much like the app model, effects have to be submitted and reviewed by Facebook before being made available.
As the platform becomes richer, will we see consumers creating an even greater share of the most popular content online, just by using their social apps? Where brands were slightly slow to get to grips with Snapchat and perhaps justified this by thinking of it as a small(ish) walled garden, the same rationale cannot be applied to any camera app developed by Facebook.
The possibilities for brands to produce their own magical AR content are exciting, but so too are the possibilities of harnessing newly AR-literate influencers to create some of this stuff on their behalf.
Big advertising opportunities
We've already seen the potential for sponsored Snapchat lenses and filters. With Facebook's Camera Effects Platform, this potential is multiplied many times.
With any object recognisable, not just a face, the relevance for brands increases greatly. From cars to clothes, furniture to buildings, food to scenery, the creative applications should allow Facebook to create some snazzy branded experiences.
Adding sticky notes to real world objects
One of the immediate uses of the AR Studio (one part of the Camera Effects Platform open to developers) is to add information cards to real world objects. In his keynote, Mark Zuckerberg described the scenario of visiting the Coliseum and learning about the building by holding up your phone.
The implications of this are broad but are particularly interesting in education. The smartphone has long been touted as a way of making real-world learning more fun, but apps such as Zappar have had limited success in this area. Facebook's use of precise location data and not just visual triggers looks like it might expand the possibilities for annotating the real world.
These virtual sticky notes are of obvious interest if they can be updated regularly and provided in multiple languages. They may have uses in providing product information, too. The still below from Facebook's example shows a card applied to a bottle of wine when the user clicks the highlighted blue dot as they look through their phone.
Again, companies such as Blippar have so far failed to combine the physical and the virtual in this way – Facebook's tech will prove if those pioneers were hampered by lack of users or something more fundamental.
Are creative uses as exciting as functional ones?
Though the labelling of real world objects is a functional use, many have pointed out that the real sweet spot in AR is actually identification and search – pointing your camera at something (let's say a plant) and being told what that thing is and either where to get it or what to do with it.
This is functionality that has been around in admittedly limited form for some time (Amazon Firefly, Google Goggles, Bing visual search) but hasn't taken off (perhaps because of device and functionality limitations). As Pinterest and other tech companies enter this space again in pursuit of visual search, it's interesting that Facebook is concentrating on fun. Indeed, the fun side of AR is probably the only proven use case on a large scale, so Facebook is arguably putting its money on the right horse.
Of course, search has never been a big thing for Facebook, but sharing content has.
VR - Facebook Spaces
In the great tradition of tech product launches, Facebook's explainer video for Spaces is cringey beyond belief, but it's probably the quickest way to understand the platform. It's a heady mix of communication through avatars, 360-degree scenery, content sharing and 3D drawing.
A premium on 360-degree content
Facebook's new release says: "You and your friends can relive personal memories from your own Timelines, or even make new ones as you explore things that interest you from people and Pages you follow."
There's an obvious opportunity for publishers and brands here. Spaces needs 360-degree photos and videos for people to explore, and brands can provide this. Yes, there are brands that have already experimented here (e.g. Thomas Cook, Ted Baker, Renault) but the addition of social interaction makes for an interesting prospect.
Even from an experiential/events marketing point of view, rather than simply whacking a headset on a person, a salesperson can interact with the consumer within the content, leading to much more personable and enjoyable experiences.
Patience, everyone need a headset
VR headsets are few and far between at the moment (among the general populace), which means that as Facebook Spaces is rolled out, many interactions must necessarily be between one caller in real life and one in VR. Will these interactions work?
I know you've just watched one cringey video, but I'm going to make you watch another that illustrates one of these interactions.
I don't think it's such a terrible experience for the non-headset person as they can enjoy the cartoon avatar and relative novelty of the experience. However, I'm unsure of the benefit for the person calling in VR – all they see is a projected video call, just as they would do if they were looking at their smartphone.
Truly social experiences in VR will depend on headset penetration increasing dramatically. Brands don't need to worry about this in the wild for a while yet.
Is there an appetite for animation?
The unknowable is whether people will enjoy these types of experiences. Whilst I can relate to millennials and youngsters who want to hide behind an avatar, I also know that bitmoji isn't for everyone. That Groove Armada lyric comes to mind – "if everybody looked the same..."
Personally, I would use social VR over Skype (or webinar tech) in a heartbeat, if the animations and the mouth movement are indeed convincing. However, much further down the line, it's not hard to imagine a world of AR and VR making real experiences all the more valuable.