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Facebook's 3D photos expand to millions more phones thanks to AI

Figuring out 3D scenes from 2D imagery can pep up your posts -- and the technology can help Tesla cars and robots navigate the real world.

Facebook uses AI to gauge how far away elements of a scene are from the camera, creating what's called a depth map. That's used to convert a 2D photo into a 3D photo.

Facebook; GIF by Nicole Archer/CNET

Facebook has used artificial intelligence technology to bring 3D photos to people taking pictures on phones that only can take plain old 2D shots. By training its AI systems on existing 3D photos, Facebook can figure out how to make 3D photos even if your camera can't.

Facebook announced 3D photos in 2018 but initially offered the technology only with iPhones that could take portrait mode shots. For those, Apple uses dual cameras to reconstruct 3D data about the scene, called a depth map. Since then it expanded to other dual-camera phones like newer Samsung Galaxy models. But now Facebook creates that depth map on its own using the AI technology.

"This advance makes 3D photo technology easily accessible for the first time to the many millions of people who use single-lens camera phones or tablets," Facebook researchers said in a Friday blog post explaining the 3D technology. Another benefit: people can make 3D photos with single front-facing cameras, too, Facebook said.

It won't work on every smartphone, but it should work on an iPhone 7 or newer phone, or a recent midrange or better Android device, Facebook said. 

Facebook now can create 3D photos from 2D photos from many phones, not just from dual-camera models like newer iPhones.

Facebook now can create 3D photos from 2D photos from many phones, not just from dual-camera models like newer iPhones.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The feature shows just how sophisticated digital camera technology called computational photography is becoming. The technology uses increasingly sophisticated processing to do things like correct photo problems, add portrait effects, beautify faces and even photograph the stars at night with a mere mobile phone.

Making 3D out of 2D photos is a nice feature for Facebook and companies like Google, which uses AI to figure out depth so it can blur backgrounds in portrait photos. But 3D depth maps have more serious uses, too. Tesla uses AI-powered depth judgments to power its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features without using expensive 3D laser scanner systems called lidar. And you don't want your car to misjudge the distance to anything around it when you're cruising down the highway at 70 mph.

For its part, Facebook plans to improve the 3D technology with new abilities, like calculating the geometric orientation of surfaces and using the technology in augmented reality. It also hopes others can use Facebook's approach for challenges like building robots that navigate the real world.