Facebook & Snapchat are battling it out to change the way we visualize the world around us

Originally featured in the May 28th 2017 issue of Campaign Middle East

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. And that’s probably never been truer than it is today. It’s no surprise that people are communicating less and less through text these days – and more and more through visual means on mobile messaging apps and social media platforms in particular.

Instagram may have kick-started this trend a few years ago on social media, but Snapchat dragged it into the personal messaging space and other platforms have followed suit, so much so that now, rather than using digital imagery as a way of simply documenting and presenting our lives, we actively use visuals to communicate in the place of text. Snapchat has been the poster child of this movement over the last 3 years or so, tripling its daily active users to over 160 Million. Not content at being left behind, Facebook has copied pretty much every visual messaging feature that Snapchat has popularized on each of its four platforms – Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook itself.

While facial lenses and basic image editing have become a bit of a commodity on social messaging channels though, both platforms are trying to branch out from this to a more ‘augmented reality’-style future where users can actively overlay digital elements onto whatever they are looking at in real-time. Think Pokemon Go, although much more interactive and responsive to your actual surroundings. Snapchat describes it as “painting the world with 3D experiences”.

Snapchat may have been the catalyst for this trend, but it seems that Facebook are innovating at faster speed. At the company’s recent F8 event Mark Zuckerberg launched a host of new 3D camera effects, highlighting a renewed focus on creating a ‘camera platform’, an onus on the camera not simply being a tool used just to capture images, but to communicate too. He even went as far as to say that the camera needs to be more central than the text box in all of their apps.

This is a way for Facebook to fully insert itself into the real world, to become the link between your smartphone and everything you see around you. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Zuckerberg expanded on this approach, “Facebook is so much about marrying the physical world with online. When you can make it so that you can intermix digital and physical parts of the world, that’s going to make a lot of our experiences better and our lives richer”.

Demoing these new 3D camera effects, one Facebook engineer pointed his phone at a table and a 3D propeller plane appeared on the screen, flying around a water bottle on the table top. Another used his phone’s camera to turn the room into a planetarium, with planets and stars spread out across the ceiling. Another took a normal photo of a face, then manipulated the expressions into a smile and then a frown.

Facebook also showed off various 3D scenes created entirely from a handful of 2D photos. The scenes had real depth to them, allowing viewers to tilt their head to see behind a bed in a room, or peer around a tree in a forest. Users could dim the lights in the image of a room, flood it with water, or even leave a digital object in the room that would still be there for someone else to discover at a later time.

The ultimate idea here is to turn the real world into an extension of Facebook itself. While Zuckerberg highlights examples like using Facebook’s camera to view pieces of digital art affixed to a wall, or to play a digital game overlaid on a table-top, you can see the long game here – dragging elements that would normally appear in your feed, for example, into the real world. But as well as pieces of content from your friends and family, surely this means ads too. As the traditional Facebook Newsfeed takes a back seat to messaging apps, this could be one way of keeping this type of content relevant going into the future, as well as expanding their ad inventory in the process.

But what will this mean for brands when consumers are living in an augmented world, constantly interacting with and visually manipulating their surroundings? And what happens when we are all wearing AR glasses or contact lenses 24/7? Visions of a Minority Report-esque world where ads bombard us at every turn spring to mind, but surely there must be another way. I guess we’ll have to just wait and see.