At Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Jose, California Mark Zuckerberg has announced a series of new features covering augmented reality, AI bots, and more far-fetched plans to close the gap between humans and machines. In particular, he wants Facebook users to be able to type with their brains and hear with their skin.
Possibly the most significant, immediate announcement from Zuckerberg was the launch of a new closed beta platform for AR features to compete with Snapchat, alongside Messenger features designed to encourage users to make the most of bots built by third parties.
Here are the highlights from Facebook’s F8 conference:
Typing with your brain
Perhaps the most ambitious project Facebook has ever announced, Zuckerberg has said his firm is working on the development of what’s been dubbed Building 8. Regina Dugan, who previously headed up Darpa, told the F8 audience the project is focusing on two areas: typing with your brain and hearing through your skin.
“Over the next two years, we will be building systems that demonstrate the capability to type at 100 [words per minute] by decoding neural activity devoted to speech,” Dugan wrote in a Facebook post. She said the aim is to turn thoughts into words on a screen. The system Facebook is building will be non-invasive and Dugan says it could “become a speech prosthetic for people with communication disorders”.
The other approach Facebook is taking is to turn the two square metres of skin on the human body into a listening device. The firm has already demonstrated an “artificial cochlea” that can hear and is now working on using the sensors in the skin to interpret what is being said.
Augmented reality platform
The AR ‘camera effects platform’ will allow developers to build tools for Snapchat-style effects and masks. “We’re making the camera the first augmented reality platform,” Zuckerberg said. Additional options to personalise in the app, from animated 3D effects and the introduction of Giphy GIFs (possible through its newly launched AR Studio, and also available in live video and Messenger chat) to mapping, will follow as the development stage matures, Zuckerberg added. The AR Studio forms a large part of Facebook’s future growth and will be the hub that helps bring augmented reality gaming to the social network. It helps developers with key aspects of the groundwork, such as real-time face tracking.
One year on from the Messenger platform being released to developers, VP of Messenger David Marcus additionally announced the features of version 2.0, from public QR codes that link to bots, to group chats that incorporate these bots.
Previous bots have been built to help Messenger users shop, order takeaways, and send money. Within this latest announcement, Facebook’s real desire for the ‘app for everything’ becomes clear: to make its bot network go viral. Virality is the peak of content marketing, and Facebook wants the same success for the bots on its network.
Talking about one of the new features – Chat Extensions – which allows group chats to have a bot added directly to the conversation, Marcus said: “We think this will enable people to virally share bots.” The example he gave was of a person wanting to share a new song they love, and adding something like the Spotify bot to the group chat to enhance that conversation. “With Chat Extensions, we enable multiple people to chat with the same business at the same time.”
Other features are squarely designed at attracting new users. From today, a ‘discover’ tab will appear on the right-hand side of the home screen and, when selected, will show a list of recently used bots, trending ‘experiences’ and a search field – much like the facilities of the search bar in the normal Facebook mobile app. Developers can apply to Facebook to have their bot included in this section, so they will not solely be prioritized on relevance and usefulness but on whether or not they have applied to the service and been successful.
Businesses are also now being invited to generate multiple QR codes for their bots so they can track exactly where they are being scanned. Facebook suggests this could be done down to the individual table level at restaurants. For customers, QR codes could link to bots that help them get more information while attending a sports or music event, Marcus suggests.
Bots are set to become a bigger part of the Messenger gaming experience too, to make it more social, and friends can be invited to play by tapping on the Games tab on the app home screen, a feature now being rolled more widely rolled out.
Virtual assistant M
M, Messenger’s virtual assistant, will now start making more suggestions in-app. It will log what task a user is doing, and pop up to add hints or reminders. Facebook wants M to “offer people more ways to do more” and is demonstrating this through a US-only tie-in with delivery.com that will allow group chat ordering and payment. “The more you use M, the more it will make relevant suggestions to you,” said Marcus.
For businesses, a new API will enable the creation of bots that can answer basic FAQs for companies with a Facebook Page. The ‘smart replies’ will include opening hours and contact details and Facebook is introducing a way for businesses to work with multiple developers more easily, so they can setup different bots faster.
Marcus, in his keynote, described the path Facebook sees for the app: “We think of Messenger as being like the new social living room for the world, where people can hang out, share, chat, play games or buy things, while still being able to reach nearly everyone, wherever they are. We now think we are combining two tools of the past – the telephone directory (the way we used to find people) with the Yellow Pages (the way we used to find businesses).”
Other features announced at the conference include:
Facebook’s app for businesses will now allow easier file-sharing (via collaborations with Microsoft, Salesforce, Quip, Box and Dropbox), better security features and the use of professional cameras with its Workplace Live API. It’s also inviting third parties to build bots for the platform.
More open-source AI
Facebook has launched an open source deep learning framework, Caffe2, aimed at “industrial-strength applications with a heavy focus on mobile” versus the research-led AI framework PyTorch it previously released. In an essay written by Zuckerberg in the new year, he expressed how integral AI would be to every element of Facebook’s future.
Facebook is now allowing developers to customize start and end screens for their games, and new APIs are aimed at increasing group play – for instance, a new Words with Friends launch will encourage gamers to share their best and worst moments on the main app. The social network was keen to highlight this growing area, flagging up that 800 million monthly active users either play games within Facebook or when logged in.
Little helpers have been launched by Spotify, Yahoo, Apple Music and Western Union, among others. As an example, song recommendations will be made based on user behavior, with messages popping up with these suggestions. All of the bots will have elements that focus on groups chats.