IT was hardly a coincidence when, hours after Snapchat announced its newest innovation-a series of live augmented reality filters-Mark Zuckerberg got onstage at his company’s eighth annual developer’s conference in San Jose, California, and introduced Facebook’s own set of augmented-reality apps for its platform.
“In the future, technology is going to keep making us more productive and that’s going to change how we all work,” Zuckerberg said Tuesday in a speech that he might as well have plagiarized from Evan Spiegel, if Spiegel cared about productivity instead of cameras. “In the future, more of us are going to contribute to culture and society in ways that are not measured by traditional economics and GDP. That’s why I’m so excited about A.R.”
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Snapchat should be honoured by the years Facebook has spent knocking off its features. Ever since Spiegel spurned Zuckerberg and his attempt to buy Snapchat for $3 billion, Facebook has issued clone after clone of parts of Snapchat’s core product.
A dozen iterations later, Facebook finally landed on something that seems to have stuck: Instagram Stories, a nearly exact copy of Snapchat Stories, which lets users upload pictures and video to the platform that can be viewed by friends for a full 24 hours before self-destructing.
That was in August: by March, when Snapchat went public, Facebook had added Stories features to WhatsApp, Messenger, and its main Facebook product.
In April, the company announced that Instagram Stories now has 200 million daily active users, surpassing the 161 million Snap reported in its last filing. That’s a 33 % jump since January, when Instagram hit 150 million daily users, a demonstration of just how quickly Facebook can increase engagement on its platforms by leveraging its massive user base against competitors.
So it doesn’t exactly register as a surprise that during his F8 presentation on Tuesday, an uncharacteristically animated Zuckerberg went so far as to gratuitously borrow language from Snapchat, which in September announced its first hardware product-Spectacles-and rebranded itself as a camera company.
“If you take one thing away from today: we’re making the camera the first augmented reality platform,” Zuckerberg said. “For those of you watching us roll out cameras across all our platforms, that was act one. This is act two.”
Zuckerberg’s decision to highlight augmented reality also seemed to be a tacit admission that Facebook’s efforts to develop full-on virtual reality haven’t been as successful as he would like. Last month, Facebook’s virtual-reality wunderkind Palmer Luckey, who joined when Facebook acquired his V.R. company Oculus, left the company. Oculus recently cut the prices of its signature headset amid reports of sagging sales. Earlier this year, Facebook poached ex-Googler Hugo Barra from Xiaomi to lead its V.R. team, a signal to some that Facebook’s V.R. projects needed more adult leadership.
Facebook’s new Camera Effects platform will first be available within the Camera feature on smartphones, but eventually it will become compatible with augmented-reality hardware devices, too. “I used to think that glasses were going to be the first mainstream augmented reality,” Zuckerberg said, either hinting at the possibility that Facebook will develop its own A.R. hardware, or taking a dig at Spectacles, or perhaps both. “We all know where we want this to get eventually. We all want glasses or eventually contact lenses that look and feel normal but let us overlay all kinds of information and digital objects on top of the real world.”
“Augmented reality is going to help us mix the digital and physical in new ways,” Zuckerberg continued onstage. “That’s why it’s such an important trend.”
Snapchat isn’t going anywhere yet-it had a euphoric I.P.O. in March, and it has a comfortable $23 billion market cap today, making it more than twice as valuable as Twitter, by Wall Street’s standards-but on Tuesday, Facebook sent a clear message to Spiegel and his company: we copied you once, and we’ll do it again.