Is there more to Facebook than status updates and likes?
The short answer is yes, and not just because of acquisitions such as Oculus VR (though that does factor into its plans).
This week, Facebook invited a group of reporters, including yours truly, to visit its New York office, where a sizeable chunk of its artificial intelligence team is based.
Beyond the rows and rows of desktop computers, the company set up a series of displays and mini-exhibits to show a bit of how its social network functions, and moreover what Facebook plans to produce in the coming 10 or so years (see slideshow).
Three areas of focus—artificial intelligence, connectivity, and virtual reality—were highlighted by the company during the tour, though few specifics were revealed. It was more of a light, press preview than a detailed announcement of things to come, so take my observations with more than a few grains of salt.
Though Facebook is used rampantly on high-speed data networks, especially in the U.S., many parts of the world simply do not have such broadband services available. One way the company wants to tackle this matter is by building large drones—powered by solar panels—that would relay data to folks in remote areas that lack access. This coincides with Facebook’s Internet.org project, which first surfaced in 2014, to bring connectivity to more parts of the world—and not just for posting pictures on the social network.
The company’s New York staff is also steeped in artificial intelligence development, working on technology that can visually recognize objects and images. For example, this could be used to help blind users of Facebook understand pictures that come up in their feed.
Natural language processing technology is also being developed under the artificial intelligence umbrella. Software is being taught to understand such verbal commands as “turn on the lights” or “shut the door.”
Some of the artificial intelligence research is working towards understanding and anticipating users’ habits and interests (edging into that digital assistant arena where Siri and Cortana have been dueling). Facebook’s concierge, called M, is being tested at the moment with small group of users, and can perform tasks such as booking travel plans.
The more hands-on part of the tour led to the realm of virtual reality—showing off the Gear VR, built in conjunction with Samsung, and the Oculus Rift.
The consumer release of Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality hardware developed by Oculus VR, is still a little ways off, expected sometime in the first quarter of 2016. Developers have had access to Oculus kits for a while so they could develop software to work with it. During the tour, I got to play a demo of a forthcoming video game, EVE: Valkyrie, one of several titles in the works for the virtual reality headsets. I have more than a little experience with space sim games; this felt like an immersive simulation of sitting in the cockpit of a star fighter like an X-Wing in the attack on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi or a Colonial Viper in a dogfight from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series.
While the Oculus Rift headset has its visual interface built in, the Samsung Gear VR unit must be used in combination with a mobile phone, which serves as the screen for the headset. The Samsung Gear VR is already available for purchase.
Not all of what was on display is strictly being developed in New York, but the exhibit showed a little more of Facebook’s presence in the city. The company has also been reaching out more to the local developer community with programs such as FbStart, which paid a visit in June to Brooklyn to encourage creators of mobile apps to work with the social network.
Since Facebook held back some specifics on its works-in-progress, it is hard to say what will come of some of the technology that was on display. The game plan to go beyond being just a social network became a bit clearer, though, and it seems to be more than just a digital dream in virtual reality.