Facebook today announced a new suite of augmented reality tools for Messenger the company is calling “world effects,” which basically let users drop real-time 3D objects into photos or videos within the camera frame. The technology builds on Facebook’s existing AR features, like the ability to add filters and masks to your face in a selfie, and it’s designed to make Messenger more interactive by leveraging the increasingly sophisticated computer vision capabilities of smartphones. The first set of world effects include a floating heart, an arrow, and a 3D robot and unicorn, as well as word bubbles with predetermined messages like “love,” “heart,” and “miss you.”
The idea is to make Messenger as playful and multifaceted as possible, so it can stay competitive with Snapchat and, Facebook hopes, lure away some of Snap’s younger user base. Snapchat launched a version of this product back in April, calling it world lenses. But Facebook says it’s just getting started. The company first launched its AR platform eight months ago at the F8 developers conference, where it teased a vision for the world in which every object can be identified and by a smartphone camera in real time, similar to Google’s existing Lens feature, but also augmented using object recognition and 3D animation. A real coffee cup can be recorded showing a virtual wave of steam, for instance.
So Facebook is effectively racing against not just Snapchat in this field, but Apple and Google as well, both of which have launched their own AR platforms in addition to baking it new AR features within their respective mobile apps and services. Facebook is at a disadvantage in this respect. The company may have a user base approaching one-third of the Earth’s population, but it does not have direct control over the camera on a smartphone, from which the social network is primarily accessed, because it does not own and operate a mobile OS.
To that end, Facebook says it’s opening its AR platform, called AR Studio, to third-party developers in open beta, so they can start building out a competitive app store of sorts to compete with Apple and Google. The goal now is to create the most compelling use case for AR — which right now looks like messaging — and use that to draw in and retain users over time. It’s unclear whether Facebook can do that with its current set of tools, or if competitors can simply keep pace with the company’s AR advancements to prevent it from taking over. So while world effects and other neat AR tricks may look innocuous on the surface, they do in fact represent the next mobile battleground.