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Watch Out, Snap: Mark Zuckerberg Outlines Facebook's AR Ambitions

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Facebook's camera effects can play with live video, too.
Facebook's camera effects can play with live video, too. Credit: Facebook via Facebook for developers

Facebook was late to the whole phone-and-camera thing but it's been making up for ground it ceded to Apple and even Snapchat lately. Today Mark Zuckerberg announced he is confident his social network will take the lead in augmented reality.

"You may have noticed that we rolled out some cameras across our apps," Mr. Zuckerberg said, addressing Facebook's F8 developers conference on Tuesday. "That was Act 1."

As for Act 2, the Facebook CEO outlined a plan to out-innovate in the space. Some people see these augmented reality selfies and think "maybe this is just what kids are into these days," Mr. Zuckerberg said. "We see a new platform."

Snapchat, the first major messaging platform to offer animated lenses, has perhaps the greatest cause for concern. Here's why:

Augmented everything

For starters, Facebook is opening its cameras, now in all its apps, to developers. Expect offerings ranging from AR experiences like animated selfie masks and augmented reality games.

"Instead of 10 or 20 options to choose from, you're going to have thousands," Zuckerberg said. Snapchat builds its own lenses, and can only offer so many at one time. "No one has built a platform yet," added Zuckerberg.

That wow factor

Snapchat's parent company Snap has been a formidable visionary in mobile so far. Today it did show off its latest lenses advancement -- on the same day as F8 -- launching better graphics in 3D world lenses that can decorate an entire landscape with digital flourishes.

But going forward that might not be enough, industry watchers suggest.

"Snapchat is going to need some new shit," said one agency exec, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They need to prove they can truly innovate."

Facebook's world building

Facebook's AR platform also has high-powered graphics that can turn everyday objects into fantastical, otherworldly experiences.

At today's conference, Zuckerberg displayed a picture of people staring at a wall through their phones, Facebook's AR tech turning the everyday building into a virtual street art installation. "This will be a thing in the future," Zuckerberg said. "People standing around looking at blank walls."

Brand ready

Snapchat has done creative work with brands to offer augmented reality experiences, and they pay top dollar for it. Meanwhile, Facebook's platform is open to brands and agencies.

In one instance, Mr. Zuckerberg showed how a photo of a room could be filled with Skittles with the click of a button. Nike made an augmented reality app that can track stats on a run and share the results.

In many cases, the augmented reality through Facebook was as sleek as Snapchat's creations, only with more interactivity. In one demo, gamers could take pictures inside "Mass Effect: Andromeda Strain" and share their top scores.

"The AR platform and all the stuff they do in it, is pretty next level," said Jason Stein, CEO of Laundry Service. "Everything Facebook showed is pretty far ahead of Snapchat."

Basic training

For now many of what was discussed today are just "primitive tools," Zuckerberg said, adding that it was early in the journey to create better offerings. The AR platform can make experiences cheaply that might be too costly in the real world, Zuckerberg said: Watching a wide screen projection of a film on a bedroom wall, for example.

Facebook only recently launched a central camera with the augmented reality filters, and Facebook-owned Instagram started giving users interactive stickers to play with inside videos. Coming down the line, Facebook promised even "crazier stuff."