Mark Zuckerberg gave us a taste of his vision of the future at the Facebook annual global developer conference F8, 2017. It involves seeing an augmented version of the world through the smartphone camera.
The smartphone camera, however, is only a placeholder until the big guns arrive.
In Zuckerberg’s words, “…we do not have the science or technology today to build the AR glasses that we want… We may in five years, or seven years, or something like that.”
The future that Facebook is preparing for is much grander and makes smartphone cameras (and smartphones itself) irrelevant.
Future — brought to you by Facebook
Facebook’s ideal future is one where the world is most often experienced virtually augmented. This makes sense since Facebook’s business model is owning as much of the consumer time as possible, and the more irrelevant you make the physical world, the greater the available pool of consumer time.
In this future world (not too distant) the virtual will replace a lot of the physical (real) experiences and objects. Zuckerberg himself demonstrated how two people with AR glasses will play a game of chess with no chessboard.
This future world not only gives Facebook a share of increased consumer time, but it also opens up a share of the consumer’s commerce for the company. Why buy things (like TV) when you can just experience them virtually? Or, why buy office spaces when you can meet virtually every day?
It’s like this: If a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a thousand pictures, an immersive simulation will be worth a thousand videos
It could fundamentally reshape many industries, and owning this platform will make Facebook an even bigger deal.
This is exciting but it also gives me this nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Facebook has created its fair share of problems managing normal reality including:
- Fake news — we are increasingly confused between fact and fiction
- Advertising — annoying and creepy, ads have become unwelcome to the consumer
- Privacy — platforms know too much about us and they exploit it
In Facebook’s future world, where reality will be amorphous and immersive tools can manipulate us more easily, these problems will explode.
Truth in the age of hyper-reality
Fake news may have elected a world leader or two, but we are still in the early days of this journey. It isn’t just news. We increasingly get information fed to us where we are no longer sure if it is true or not, ranging from manipulated reviews to scientifically unproven (or worse, false) advice to rewritten history to outright false information designed maliciously.
What does this have to do with the future world of augmented and virtual reality though?
It’s like this: If a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a thousand pictures, an immersive simulation will be worth a thousand videos. Or something like that. Not for no reason is virtual reality called empathy machine. It creates a strong feeling of experiencing the reality.
Now imagine such a powerful medium used to disseminate misinformation. It’s like putting a thermonuclear device in the hands of those who want to manipulate things.
Today, the beta allows developers to add simple virtual overlays, objects and even manipulate existing objects. Soon, it will get super-realistic with virtual objects that are indistinguishable from real ones and manipulations of existing reality in ways we cannot decipher.
‘We’re just a platform’ won’t cut it as an excuse.
Facebook, by virtue of pioneering a platform that enables the creation of such mixed realities, is setting up the ground where fiction and facts merge even further. While the conversations are always about the cool, fun things that can be achieved, the issues are never talked about until it is too late.
A new era of digital pollution
Today there is a proxy war going on between consumers on one side and publishers depending on advertising on the other. If internet is air, ads are its sooty pollutants — the result of capitalism gone wrong. Besides being annoying, ads have become creepy personal — thanks to platforms like Facebook for consolidating information and unleashing AI on it.
An augmented and virtual reality future, however, will unleash digital pollution of unprecedented proportions.
In F8 Zuckerberg demonstrated a large virtual banner sitting on a table with a coffee mug and also the addition of fake virtual objects to the scene. As innocuous as it looks, this is prime use-case for advertisers.
The surface of your fridge or a blank wall in your home could be a billboard for an advertiser. Facebook could be selling fridge-top views by the millions to advertisers
The future will be virtual advertising in prime real estate — like malls, tourist places etc, where your view is going to be filled with ads. If you think you can just switch off and move on, rethink. How easy is it to switch off and move on from the internet today despite all those annoying ads?
Even more creepy is the possibility that Facebook could be soon selling advertising rights to objects in your home. The surface of your fridge or a blank wall in your home could be a billboard for an advertiser. Facebook could be selling fridge-top views by the millions to advertisers.
In this new world, advertising will creep into our lives exponentially. Going by the current track record, it is not going to be pretty.
The camera is watching you, quite literally
Facebook handed out Giroptic iO 360 cameras to nearly 4,000 people at the F8. Not for nothing. To truly build this immersive virtual world, Zuckerberg really needs users to generate them but the problem is that 360 cameras are still catching up (cost and capability wise).
While handing out 360 cameras is not the solution, we can be sure that Facebook is going to make sure that it helps create an ecosystem where consumers have a 360 camera in their hand capable of high resolution.
Now, rethink privacy.
It’s bad enough have millions of cameras pointing in a direction and capturing pictures, but soon we’ll have 3d-mapped videos and photos coming from millions. You are going to be part of virtual worlds, whether you like it or not, especially as resolutions gets larger and larger.
Layer on top Facebook’s increasing advances in facial and object recognition and soon there is literally no escaping the ‘eye’ so to speak.
It’s bad enough have millions of cameras pointing in a direction and capturing pictures, but soon we’ll have 3d-mapped videos and photos coming from millions
Imagine this completely hypothetical, but entire plausible, scenario: You are on vacation, totally disconnected from Facebook or perhaps even the internet. But a Facebook algorithm spots you from a 360-degree video some tourist is shooting in a crowded tourist spot. What Facebook chooses to do with this information is secondary.
It knows you are there even if you don’t want it to.
As one of the early pioneers building the AR platform (along with Google, Apple and others), there is an important responsibility on Facebook to to build the checks and balances needed to solve these issues.
But judging by the track record, it is unlikely to do so.
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Lead image: Facebook Inside visuals: Tyagarajan Sundaresan