Facebook Expands Augmented Reality Features in Messenger

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It's now been a few months since Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) made a major push into augmented reality (AR) to complement its virtual reality (VR) efforts. At the social network's F8 developer conference earlier this year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that Facebook was "making the camera the first augmented reality platform," while introducing a handful of AR features like its Camera Effects Platform.

However, it was clear that those moves were just a starting point, and Facebook has just announced that it is introducing a new AR feature into Messenger called World Effects.

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The latest shot at Snap

World Effects allows users to insert 3D objects into photos and videos, which can be used for things like highlighting an aspect of the content and providing more expressive tools for other creative purposes. There's even a "new fun, celebratory robot" that can play music and "spice things up a bit," according to Facebook. Presumably, the celebratory robot is a direct challenge to Snap's (NYSE: SNAP) popular dancing hot dog.

In fact, you could easily say that the new features are yet another escalation of Facebook's battle with Snapchat. Snapchat is different than other social media platforms in that it focuses on messaging instead of posts that are broadcasted publicly to friends or followers, which allows more selective sharing. Snapchat is about to double down on the messaging aspect of its service, as the forthcoming redesign of its core app "separates the social from the media" by keeping photo/video messages to friends and family segregated from publisher content.

Facebook is now similarly emphasizing photo/video messaging as a way to selectively share. In addition to the new AR features in Messenger, Instagram is also considering unbundling direct messaging on that platform. It's not a coincidence that both Messenger and Instagram are simultaneously trying to find new ways to encourage people to share photos and videos, oftentimes with AR-based filters overlaid on top.

How far can Facebook take AR?

The broader question is whether or not Facebook will be fundamentally limited in its efforts to create an AR platform. Facebook itself is essentially a secondary platform on top of a platform, at least in the context of mobile, since it relies heavily on iOS and Android for distribution. Facebook's AR efforts thus far are essentially on top of its platform, which is in turn on top of another platform. (Can we call it PlatformCeption?)

This has important implications when it comes to expanding beyond photo/video filters for messaging or other creative uses. The real game-changing potential of AR technology in general comes from delivering actionable real-world information, conceptually through an AR headset of some type. As AR technology progresses, users will look for the most efficient way to access AR content, which will likely be best delivered through the underlying primary platform itself, and both Apple and Alphabet subsidiary Google continue to introduce more and more AR tools for developers.

If a user is looking to access some AR-based content or service in the future, they would prefer to go directly (via the primary platform) to the developer offering that content or service instead of inefficiently through another intermediary like Facebook's secondary platform. The good news is that Facebook recognizes the limitations of building platforms on top of other platforms, which is why its VR strategy has some optionality. Facebook's Oculus subsidiary is very much looking to create a primary platform for VR content, and currently enjoys a first-mover advantage in that space. It's also conceivable that Facebook may try to merge its AR and VR platforms at some point in the future under a unified brand like Oculus as it increasingly pursues AR/VR hardware development.

For now, AR will remain a relatively niche feature of messaging platforms, but tech giants continue to collectively march toward making augmented reality an actual reality.

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