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Facebook's next act: A new spin on reality

The same technology that made Pokemon Go so successful has a central role in the social network's vision for the future.

James Martin/CNET

There are parts of your life Facebook hasn't yet invaded. But it's coming.

The social networking giant is creating a new type of app designed to overlay images from a computer onto the real world. Hold up your phone, turn on its camera, and it'll be able to add virtual signs or art, or even games where there was none before.

The technology is called augmented reality, and Facebook says it's the next step in changing the way we interact with computers. In the future, we'll use this technology to watch television on blank walls or see furniture laid out in an empty room.

But for now, it'll look like cheesy graphics for our cameras. Just finished a run? You can take a photo with a virtual headband, map and sweat coming off your forehead. Waiting in a doctor's office? Clear off the table and start up a game you see when holding up your phone.

"We're all about extending the physical world online," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Tuesday at his company's annual conference for software developers. "Augmented reality is going to help us mix the digital and physical in new ways."

Zuckerberg sees this as the first in a series of steps toward a future in which items like glasses or contact lenses will become windows into a computerized world, where all sorts of information is available without the need to look at a screen or pull out a phone.

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Facebook is just one of many companies to profess eagerness to jump into the world of augmented reality. Microsoft has long talked about the technology, embodied in its HoloLens headset. AR was the marquee ingredient that made last year's Pokemon Go such a viral hit. And millions of people are already familiar with AR's benefits thanks to Snapchat filters. Even Apple CEO Tim Cook is hot on AR.

Whether it's Facebook that ultimately makes this world possible is still an open question. It marks a new initiative for the company as it comes to grips with its place as one of the world's largest companies, with nearly 2 billion people -- more than half the world's online population -- logging on at least once a month.

So far, that influence has allowed it to become home to political dissidents, protest movements, community groups and artists. But the company has also faced controversy, such as the rise of fake news stories, which were shared and discussed so much that politicians began arguing Facebook had inadvertently tipped the scales of the US presidential election last year.

There have also been the profound reverberations of Facebook Live, which has been used to broadcast murder, rape and torture live to people's news feeds. In the days just before Facebook's conference was set to begin, a man in Cleveland uploaded a video of himself killing 74-year old Robert Godwin, seemingly at random. Zuckerberg acknowledged the horrific event during his speech, saying he sees work to be done to prevent tragedies like that from happening.

Then there's the issue of "filter bubbles," which can lull people into believing everyone thinks just like them, since Facebook's algorithms are designed to show people things they're interested in.

While Facebook battles introspective issues about what kind of role it wants to play in the world, there are also attacks from the outside. Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, threatens Facebook's future because it's beloved by so many teens and young adults. Facebook tried to steal its mojo by cloning Snapchat's most popular features, Stories. Then Facebook copied it again. And again. And again.

Snap, which went public in March, on Tuesday launched World Lenses, a way to add special effects and 3D experiences using the phone's rear camera.

Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at Facebook's F8 developer conference in San Jose, California.

James Martin/CNET

Snapchat's role in pioneering what phone cameras can do isn't lost on Zuckerberg. He gave an indirect nod to Facebook's rival.

"Even if we were a little slow to add cameras to all our apps, I'm confident we'll push this forward," he said.

There's more to the matter than just competition with Snap, though, said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. Technology has finally evolved to allow sophisticated visual effects.

"Algorithms have improved and processing has improved so you can use computer vision effectively. It's a natural progression for Facebook to move into," Blau said. He added: "It's pretty clear that Facebook is recognizing people's most important sense is their eyes."

Finding Facebook's place in the world

No one has been more contemplative about Facebook's role in society than its founder. In February, Zuckerberg posted a nearly 6,000-word manifesto detailing Facebook's modern-day mission and the site's evolving role in the world. Among the topics he brought up are using artificial intelligence to thwart terrorism recruitment and making Facebook a vessel for civic engagement.

The answer so far is dreaming up more ways for people to share their stories, photos and videos.

The company's even creating social apps for virtual reality -- those headsets that put screens so close to your face that your brain is tricked into believing the computer-generated world is the real one. A new app it created, called Facebook Spaces, allows people to chat with one another while wearing VR headsets.

Will you hang out with friends in Facebook Spaces?

Claudia Cruz/CNET

Inside Spaces, you gather around a digital table with friends where you can talk, share photos and even join a video chat with someone using a phone to see into the virtual world. The experience comes complete with cartoony avatars you can design and customize to look like you.

"You have goofy floaty things today," but that will change, Blau said. "Floaty 3D things are the equivalent of geospaces in the 1990s -- the early websites."

It's all part of Facebook's effort to flip stereotypes about technology on their head. If you know what VR is, you might think about it as a nerdy thing, where you're isolated inside a large headset, often in a room alone, as you explore a virtual world.

But Facebook believes technology is all about friends.

"VR is a naturally social platform," Rachel Rubin Franklin, Facebook's social VR chief, said while discussing the app on stage.

Now the question is whether or not your friends will make the jump into the virtual world too. And if they don't, at least there's the goofy camera app.

Originally published 11:59 a.m. PT.
Updated 2:08 p.m. PT: Added analyst comment.

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