Recently Facebook confirmed that the world’s largest social media platform is building augmented reality glasses, a move that extends Facebook’s reach into consumer hardware. To say the least, Facebook has experienced a tumultuous year, rocked by data privacy scandals, a tumbling stock price, and negative news coverage such as a scathing New York Times exposé that was harshly critical of the company’s leadership. But amid the bad news, Facebook continues to demonstrate flashes of technology vision, and the development of AR glasses is a great example. But why exactly is Facebook developing AR glasses? In our new post, we answer this question – and a few more.

1 Why is augmented reality so important to Facebook?

Augmented reality is a natural evolution to how Facebook has embraced immersion. Facebook has injected visual engagement into its platform’s user interface, whether through livestreaming or 3D photos. As Mark Zuckerberg shared at Facebook F8 in 2016, Facebook’s 10-year plan envisions a time when its users will share digital content on to their feeds via augmented reality – and create entirely immersive experiences with virtual reality. And, it should be noted, Zuckerberg made it clear that he envisions the development of elegant augmented reality glasses although at the time he was talking conceptually.

Facebook’s business model is predicated on making revenue from advertising due to the volume of users on the platform and the amount of time those users spend in/on the application. As with any technological and associated societal movement, we’re seeing the onset of VR and AR as a commercialized consumer product occurring alongside (good) consumer adoption given we’re at the onset of really making the hardware and experiences consumer friendly. With this technology trending, Facebook needs to have a presence within that space in order to maintain the advertising revenue stream as well as keep its users engaged with “new” (or refreshed), next-gen experiences. At the same time, Facebook needs to honor its mission: connecting people.

Facebook is also smart enough to understand how the world around it is evolving. Retailers ranging from Sephora to IKEA continue to use augmented reality to improve, enhance, and augment the shopping experience. It’s no surprise that Facebook is prototyping a strategy to monetize augmented reality through the use of augmented reality advertising. While it is currently limited to face-based AR experiences (think sunglasses on your face or mauve lipstick on your lips) and is only being piloted by a few brands to start, AR-based advertising gives Facebook insight into how well people will adopt AR, learn and evolve the experience.

2 But why does Facebook want to create augmented reality eyeglasses?

Facebook wants to own the experience. Augmented reality is still an evolving technology dependent on mobile devices manufactured by technology titans such as Apple and Google. So long as Facebook lacks its own hardware, it will be hampered by the constraints that hardware vendors put on the design. Those constraints will, in turn, undermine the desired overall experience. Therefore, Facebook needs to have the freedom to architect the hardware to allow for the experiences it envisions for users.

Facebook’s approach to virtual reality demonstrates how the company wants to operate as a self-contained ecosystem. When it bought Oculus, it was able to:

  • Own the hardware
  • Manage a community and education mechanism through the Oculus Connect conference
  • Develop a VR-based social experience, Facebook Spaces

In addition, by buying Oculus, Facebook began creating an efficiency of scale for both AR and VR from a technology and resource standpoint.

3 How will Facebook get its audience to adopt augmented reality glasses?

It will be easier than you think. Facebook’s user base is already a very mobile-first audience that toggles easily between the physical and digital world. People are already comfortable using Facebook Live to share their physical-world experiences with an audience watching online. And it’s not unusual to see people using technologies such as Apple’s FaceTime to manage their physical/digital lives simultaneously, even while they’re shopping or performing other tasks where one can enhance their multitasking. How many people have you seen on the street, arm up, phone in hand, video-chatting with someone while walking?

The key for Facebook will be to make people feel comfortable wearing AR glasses instead of holding their mobile phones in front of them and ultimately ensure these experiences add a level of value to their users’ lives. Oh, and as we know about consumer electronics, those glasses will need to look sharp (unlike clunky virtual reality headsets), be easy to use, and fit in seamlessly.

4 What kinds of challenges is Facebook up against?

Facebook is competing with some formidable brands such as Apple and Google, not to mention Microsoft (HoloLens) and Magic Leap (Magic Leap One). Those companies have the muscle, technology, and brand strength to stay ahead of Facebook, and they’ve gotten third-party developers involved to create augmented reality ecosystems (e.g., Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore platforms). Facebook lacks these elements at the moment.

But Facebook’s most formidable foe right now might be Facebook. The company’s brand has been damaged by internal mismanagement to the point where advertisers and their agency partners could be losing confidence in the company. Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer for the Publicis Groupe, recently told The New York Times, “[A]s a business, they seem to have lost their compass.” An obvious question lingers: who will trust Facebook to respect their privacy once consumers realize just how much data it needs to collect about your physical world to make augmented reality work well?

5 What are Facebook’s advantages?

Still, Facebook enjoys many advantages in its development of augmented reality glasses:

  • A user base of 2 billion people around the world
  • Instagram, a platform that lends itself to augmented reality
  • An ability to adapt its revenue generating (read: advertising) products to emerging technologies
  • Lack of a tethered operating system. Apple and Google can create ecosystems through iOS and Android – but on the other hand, Facebook is not beholden to either

And, as far as data scandals and internal mismanagement goes, time may be on Facebook’s side. It’s going to take time for AR eyewear to hit the market in a meaningful way – giving Facebook some time to repair its tarnished brand, but only if the company figures out how to do so.

One final thought about augmented reality: in due course, the general public will not ask about whether AR eyewear is useful. In time, we will ask, “How did we get here?” or “When will they come out with the next generation of AR glasses?” Augmented reality will become mainstream just as voice-based interfaces are becoming. So the real question is this: why would any technology titan not make a major investment into augmented reality?

Mark Persaud

Mark Persaud

Practice Lead, Immersive Reality