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Facebook sees your phone as an augmented reality playground

Your phone will blend the digital and physical worlds with technology Facebook is testing this year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg says at the F8 conference.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shows AR technology that turns a waiting-room table into a videogame battlefield.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Imagine you and your child turning your doctor's waiting room table into a battlefield for a tower defense video game only you two can see.

Later this year, Facebook will begin releasing the tech that'll make it happen.

Welcome to augmented reality, an emerging technology that Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg touted Tuesday at his company's F8 conference for developers. While Facebook's Oculus group is focused on virtual reality, building expensive headsets that completely immerse you in a computer-generated 3D world, AR blends computer-generated imagery with the real world.

And it's coming to a phone near you. Sure, souped-up eyewear might be the ultimate way to experience AR, but camera-equipped phones running Facebook's apps are ready now, Zuckerberg said. "We're going to make the camera the first mainstream AR platform," he told developers, who'll be able to build their own ideas atop Facebook's AR foundation.

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Virtual and augmented reality hold the promise to revolutionize computing by going beyond the screens on today's PCs and phones, building digital data straight into the world itself. But so far, despite years of VR and AR work at companies like Microsoft, Google, Samsung and HTC, the technology hasn't lived up to that promise. With its technological clout and vast user base, Facebook could be the one that finally makes it real for ordinary folks.

Just don't expect AR to arrive immediately, especially in its most advanced forms, Zuckerberg said.

"It'll take a while for this to develop. Experiences are not going to change dramatically overnight," he said. "This is the kind of technology we live to build. Even if we were a little slow to add cameras to all our apps, I'm confident we're going to push this AR platform forward."

Facebook's AR ideas

Zuckerberg showed off several AR ideas that use a phone's camera to get a view of your surroundings and use its screen to augment your reality:

  • You can leave virtual notes in the real world for your friends and family -- scrawled notes for your friend at your favorite bar, or a message to your spouse on the fridge that there's leftover cheesecake.
  • Blank city walls can be painted with animated virtual art. "With AR, it's not just a painting on the wall. It fills up the whole space -- an infinite waterfall of paint coming down," Zuckerberg said of one AR art installation.
  • You can spice up a view of your breakfast cereal with the 3D words "It's feeding time" popping up out of the table and sharks circling around the bowl. In another shot, Zuckerberg added a second coffee cup, put some flowers on a plant and popped up a rating for a bottle of wine.

Facebook is launching its AR foundation today, but only in closed beta testing for selected developers, Zuckerberg said. More sophisticated projects, like the AR tower defense game on the table, will come later this year.

Eventually eyewear will become the preferred AR tool, Zuckerberg said, showing how AR-equipped glasses could present a seemingly real chessboard on your living room table.

"Think of how many things in our lives don't have to be physical. They can be digital," Zuckerberg said, citing street names and navigation directions overlaid on the real world.

Eventually, we'll use glasses for AR. That'll let us play a game of chess with a distant friend using a seemingly real chessboard.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Facebook's technology analyzes the scene the camera sees, figures out the lighting and geometry of objects, and identifies what they are -- it uses artificial intelligence techniques to do so, Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said. And it also can track hands and human skeletons for those all-important effects that will involve people.

"AR is going to help us mix the physical and digital in all new ways," Zuckerberg said. And it'll be part of Facebook's efforts to build communities online, a top company priority, Zuckerberg said. "When you join a community online, that community gets stronger. ... That's why this is such an important trend."

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