Two years ago, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the F8 Developers Conference keynote with augmented reality and the introduction of Facebook's AR camera platform, now known as Spark AR.
Since then, Facebook has faced an avalanche of controversy on its approach to user data, so augmented reality took a back seat to Facebook's new emphasis on privacy this year. At this year's F8, once the AR portion of the keynote arrived, it was quickly breezed through in less than five minutes so that Oculus VR hardware could take the spotlight.
Nonetheless, Facebook did introduce several quality-of-life improvements for Spark AR, chief among them the addition of Windows support for the Spark AR Studio software.
The company also added a new programming feature called Blocks that enables developers to divide a project into smaller portions that can be reused in other projects. Developers can share Blocks with other developers in the same way that they would share snippets of code.
Facebook has also rebuilt its Patch Editor, a visual programming interface that simplifies complex AR effects, with a new user interface, which makes the Blocks feature possible. In addition, the new Patch Editor will enable developers to add audio effects, such as Snapchat-like voice modifiers and content that reacts to music.
"In 2017, we introduced the world to a powerful AR software suite called AR Studio. Since then, we've worked with a tremendous, global community of creators and developers to help shape and define the Spark AR platform," said Michael Slater, product manager for AR at Facebook, in a statement.
"In fact, since last year's F8, over one billion people have used AR experiences powered by Spark AR. Hundreds of millions of people use these experiences monthly across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and Portal. And all of these experiences have one thing in common: they are built with Spark AR Studio."
The company also revealed that Spark AR for Instagram, originally announced at F8 2018 and running in closed beta since Oct. 2018, would open up to all developers this summer. Facebook will also expand the market to its Portal video calling gadget (which supports Spark AR) to Canada in June, and Europe this fall.
While Facebook characterized the update as "major," it's more of a solid step forward for developers rather than a major leap. However, the company did share a video that teases some new features to come "in the near future" when Kimberly Archer, head of developer marketing for AR/VR, returned to the stage. First, the video shows off a pair of try-before-you-buy experiences with furniture at home and sunglasses at a store, signaling a shift to more e-commerce tools.
Another vignette shows an AR effect triggered by scanning a theater, similar to Snapchat's recently released Landmark AR tool. Finally, the video previews Spark AR's new sound-sensitive effects, with on-screen content pulsing to music.
While the AR updates were a little more low-key this year, Facebook did manage to bring out some star power, with actor Chris Hemsworth sharing an AR promotion for Men in Black International that leverages computer vision to identify objects and tag them as terrestrial or extra-terrestrial, adding a virtual alien mask to individuals classified as the latter. Hemsworth said the effect is available on the Facebook camera today, but then he did the memory-eraser flashy thing, so I don't know what to believe anymore.
"I think that augmented and virtual reality have the potential for much more personal and intimate experiences," said Zuckerberg during the keynote. "With AR, instead of you having your face in your phone and someone else having their face in theirs, now the computing environment is going to put digital objects in the real world; they're going to be able to both interact and actually be present together."
So, while AR may not be the lead actor in this chapter of Facebook's evolution, it still has a significant role to play in the company's immediate and long-term future.