Facebook’s (mostly) annual developer event in San Francisco has been running since 2007.
Over that time it has morphed from an insider code-builder’s event to a high-profile launch event, and though the developers are still there Facebook’s message is now rather more well honed when it comes to translating their mission to the masses.
Facebook’s Messenger app, which has 900 million active monthly users, now has a new platform that allows developers to build services that work inside the chat tool. No messing here: Facebook says it is “focused on facilitating messages from businesses”, whether a hotel reservations systems, customer service or – Zuckerberg’s favorite plug of the day – 1-800-Flowers, which can order personalized flower delivery without leaving the Messenger app. Bots now include Uber and Lyft, which allow users to order cabs; Dutch airline KLM, which will now issue boarding passes; Hyatt hotels which will send reservation details; and clothing store Zulily, which will track orders.
What seems like a fiddly novelty with no clear purpose will now very quickly become a staple part of our internet experience, just as apps were before it and mobile phones before that. And Facebook has a bulging revenues book to demonstrate its track record in matching technology with businesses more than willing to pay up.
Opening the event, Zuckerberg made a discreet dig at Donald Trump’s wall-building talk and stated his support for immigration as an essential part of attracting talent. He demonstrated how Facebook’s live video feature can film and broadcast video from different hardware using a drone to fly over the heads of the audience. He previewed the latest work on Aquila, Facebook’s ongoing project to use high-altitude unmanned drones to beam internet to the developing world, and also queued up the most significant new products, from Messenger’s chatbots to the Oculus touch controllers. And there was only the briefest of mentions to the obstacles Facebook has hit in rolling out its free, limited internet service around the world.
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Virtual reality gets social
Facebook demonstrated how two people, in entirely different places, can interact in a virtual reality space, dropping themselves into a 360 degree image of their choice. Both characters could adopt a caricature of their choice, draw props for each other and take selfies – in this case “outside” the Houses of Parliament in London. The VR team is focused on “social presence”, combining the ability to interact with surroundings, and representing body language as well as voice.
Facebook’s applied machine learning team has built what it calls an “AI backbone” that is used by 25% of all Facebook engineers across the company, which is running 50 times more AI experiments than this time last year. One of those projects is translation, which is used by 800 million people every month, Facebook says, along with photo image search, “talking pictures” – which recognizes natural language descriptions of photos just by analyzing the image – and classification of video images according to subject, which means all your cat videos can more efficiently be grouped together.
Facebook live video
The live video tool will be opened up to developers so they can build new applications around it. It can combine audio and video from different sources to add effects, can access and monitor comments and shares on streams and and can be integrated with other hardware devices to broadcast live video from a drone, for example.
Oculus touch controllers
Facebook’s virtual reality company will launch a handset later in 2016 that will allow the user to touch objects and interact with people in a virtual space. “This will allow a whole new layer of immersion, a whole new set of social experiences across all these VR platforms … experiences you can’t have with any existing platform today,” said Zuckerberg, announcing the new device.
Facebook has built a prototype system with 17 cameras that films high quality, 3D, 360 degree ‘spherical’ video. Rather than get into the camera business, Facebook is publishing the hardware and software details on GitHub later this year so that technologists can build their own 360 cameras. More than 20,000 videos have been filed for Facebook 360 so far.
Facebook’s ambitious but slightly troubled plan to provide a limited but free selection of apps for mobile phone users in the developing world has now reached 25 million users. A new simulator will allow developers to test their app in an environment that mimics poor connectivity, while a new demographics tool gives anonymized information about people using their app, including their region and gender.
Social networking isn’t enough, and neither is beaming internet connectivity from a high-altitude drone for the developing world; Facebook wants to provide wireless internet for underserved urban areas in the western world too. It announced the Terragraph project, which will provide high-speed connections at a relatively low cost . The 60GHz signal can’t travel long distances, but can be easily manipulated around buildings in dense urban areas. Terragraph is being tested at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in California, and the nearby city of San Jose.
The second project is ARIES, a proof of concept that transmits bandwidth very efficiently over a relatively small amount of spectrum. Facebook wants this technology to be made available to the academic research community so it can be improved, and is also interested in developing it for use in rural areas where one small chunk of bandwidth has to go a long way.
The new “account kit” feature allows people to log in to apps more easily, with just an email or phone number, and with SMS login support for 230 countries. “Profile expression” allows users to add videos from third party apps to their Facebook profile page, including Cinemagraph Pro and Vine.
Saving articles and quotes
A save button that lets people save stories, videos and products on online stores to their Facebook ‘saved’ folder. A small but significant feature that spells bad news for bookmarking tools like Pinboard and Pocket.
- Added to that, a new quote sharing tool lets developers build apps that format quotes nicely, and allows them to easily highlight and share quotes from articles and web pages.
New developer tools
Also appearing in an app near you soon:
- Instant Articles, the nicely formatted, faster news story pages that open inside Facebook, is now open to any publisher in the world. Why publish on the open web when you can publish a more share-friendly, cleaner bespoke article within Facebook? There is an answer to that: the open web.
- New features added to the analytics tool built for Facebook Apps. Facebook says this is already used by 450,000 apps so that developers can monitor the type of audience using their app.
- The new rights manager identifies video content and helps track copyrighted material on the site. Facebook says this was prioritized after feedback from publishers. A new tracking tool allows publishers to track videos across different Facebook pages, and share videos they want to publish across multiple accounts.
- More features added to React Native, Facebook’s open source tool set that allow developers to build Facebook features like login, sharing and app analytics into their apps.
And finally … The mysterious building
Facebook has hired Regina Dugan, former head of the US military’s technology wing Darpa, who has been running the advanced technologies and projects lab at Google. She’ll lead up a mysterious new project called Building 8, which Zuckerberg said will work “building new hardware products to advance our mission of connecting the world” and will be infused with “hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Dugan’s hire represents a major investment in Facebook’s more experimental hardware and software companies like Oculus. While Google’s moonshots at connectivity like Project Loon are mostly years out from real deployment, Facebook’s experimental projects are rolling out almost immediately.
Dugan said on her Facebook page: “Building 8 is an opportunity to do what I love most … tech infused with a sense of our humanity. Audacious science delivered at scale in products that feel almost magic. A little badass. And beautiful. There is much to build at Facebook … and the mission is human … compelling.”
This article was written by Jemima Kiss and Nellie Bowles in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th April 2016 22.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010