Introduction and global connections
Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, attended by more than 3,000 app developers, isn't really annual at all, having failed to make an appearance in 2013, 2012 and 2009. However, this certainly hasn't lessened the excitement surrounding the event and this year anticipation, particularly surrounding plans for Oculus Rift, was palpable – even as the European Commission warned the EU that they should close their Facebook accounts to avoid being spied on by US security services, and the UK's BladeRoom Group filed a lawsuit with the social networking giant for theft of intellectual property.
CTO Mike Schroepfer certainly wasn't distracted by events outside of F8, announcing on day two of the conference that Facebook was "here to talk about the future", setting the tone for the most notable announcements, including where Rift fits into the social network. Facebook's core priorities appear to revolve around Oculus Rift, drones and AI, all intended to make Facebook more 'lifelike' and 'useful'.
The $2 billion (around £1.3 billion, AU$2.6 billion) purchase of Oculus Rift a year ago prompted a lot of head scratching at the time, although the world's collective scalps were soothed by Mark Zuckerberg's explanation at the time that he saw Rift as a "new communication platform" and a "platform for many other experiences," and not merely a fillip to gaming companies.
"By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life," he went on. "Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face."
A year on and, even without an F8 two-dayer, we're all pretty clued up to roughly where Zuckerberg sees Rift fitting in o the new Facebook 'family' – a new means of communication through the social media platform; a future where the internet will rely heavily on virtual and augmented reality tech and applications. F8 provided the Facebook team an opportunity to paint a more vivid picture of where they see things going with Oculus Rift: opportunities to connect the world over as if all are in the same room together.
But there's a way to go yet. As Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer explained: "After thousands of demos we know we are just on the cusp, just getting there to get that sense of presence where for a moment your conscious brain is overruled by the subconscious that says, 'You are not where you think you are'." And Facebook couldn't (or wouldn't) give a timeframe on when Oculus Rift headsets will be available, so it's very much a case of watch this (head) space.
However, the newly announced spherical video gives everyone a taste – a "first step" – of what Oculus Rift will be able to do, once it's launched properly as part of the Facebook family. Spherical video is set to allow Facebook users to interact with immersive, 360-degree videos in their Facebook News Feeds, following YouTube's lead. The videos are shot with 24 cameras, all working in concert, allowing viewers to "move around inside" the video and view from a variety of angles. Soon, said Zuckerberg, "you're going to be able to put on your Oculus headset and view spherical videos there too."
And Rift is only one member of this new Facebook family. As Zuckerberg explained: "Facebook used to be this single blue app and it did a lot of different things, now Facebook is a family of apps. Moving from being a single service to a family of apps is the biggest shift we've made in our strategy in helping connect people."
Drones and Messenger Platform
The Aquila solar-powered drone prototype might not be considered an 'app', but it's certainly a new family member. Boasting the wingspan of a 737 and the mass of a small car, it is intended to fly up to 90,000 feet to provide internet access to net-poor areas in order to "get everyone on the internet," according to Schroepfer. Altruistic, sure, but Facebook is sure to be one of the main beneficiaries of both this and Google Inc's internet-beaming satellites. It currently has 1.3 billion monthly users and is hungry for more.
And this desire to get the whole planet online is set to compound one of the issues informing the need for artificial intelligence development: the glut of digital picture and video content, with more and more added daily. AI will help to index and archive this huge amount of data in a more rational and human way, to "build a deeper understanding of what's in the content."
Facebook is working to build new AI systems that can learn, be trained and solve basic logical problems, helping to make sense of the brimming sea of data, which is set to become a Great Flood as Facebook widens its global reach.
"If we achieve our first goal, get everyone on the internet, build services at scale for the entire planet, we create this new problem: so much information you can't consume the stuff that's important to you," Schroepfer said.
Adding to this info flood, the announcement that Facebook is opening up its four-year-old Messenger service to third-party developers – the 'Messenger Platform' – so that they can add their own functionality ("more tools for expression") looks to be an attempt by Zuckerberg to broaden Messenger into a wider platform, with over 40 new apps already developed. With more than 600 million people said to use Messenger at least once a month, there's clearly scope to make it more than just a chat hub. "One of the fastest growing and most important members of our family is Messenger," explained Zuckerberg.
Facebook had previously announced VoIP calls and that it was allowing US Messenger users to send money to and from one another, and at F8 Zuckerberg also announced Businesses on Messenger to "reinvent" how people and businesses communicate.
This will allow members of the public to communicate directly with representatives from businesses that they interact with or buy goods from, instead of using the more traditional email approach – something Skype once tried unsuccessfully to front up. One specific use of Businesses on Messenger will be to allow users to receive real-time shopping updates, tracking and confirming orders via instant message conversations.
With more and more companies worldwide overcoming their initial scepticism of Facebook as a business-facing platform, this is an interesting development, expanding business' reach into Facebook's more traditionally personal orbit.