This column originally appeared on April 18 on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this.
With all of the moves that Facebook (FB) has made over the past several months to add content editing and sharing features to its apps that strongly resemble ones supported by a certain newly-public rival, one can't fault the tech press for assuming that its F8 developer's conference would feature more of the same. Especially since that rival unveiled a new feature on Tuesday -- the ability to add 3D "lenses" to photos and videos taken with a phone's rear camera, rather than just selfies -- that seemed like just the kind of thing Mark Zuckerberg's company would show off at F8.
Facebook did indeed reveal similar tools. But it also went far beyond that, leveraging two of its strengths -- the company's large developer ecosystem and its engineering prowess -- to back up Zuckerberg's claim that Facebook is on its way toward building "the first mainstream augmented-reality platform." And it's doing so at a time when growing consumer interest in AR and the capabilities of newer smartphones could make a leadership position in this field quite valuable.
While Facebook made numerous announcements during its 80-minute F8 keynote address, none was arguably larger than the unveiling of its Camera Effects platform, which lets third-party developers create masks, filters, frame effects and other digital objects that can be added to material recorded with the camera features within Facebook's mobile apps, including live video. A pair of free tools, known as AR Studio and Frame Studio, will be provided to developers looking to support the platform.
Importantly, Facebook's platform doesn't merely support the kind of digital overlays currently enabled by its camera features, as well as Snap Inc.'s (SNAP) Snapchat -- for example, a digital hat that might be placed on a user's head while taking a selfie, or a storm cloud appearing above his or her head. Instead, the company wants to use AI to understand things like what objects are in a scene, the location and type of setting in which content is being recorded in and the depth and positioning of detected objects. This information, in turn, is used to figure out what kind of AR content to show or recommend, and to optimize how it's displayed. Content that's not only used to entertain, but also to inform users about their real-world surrounding and in some cases create digital artwork.
Examples given at F8 include adding an information card to a wine bottle, having digital steam appear above a coffee cup, gauging the depth of a table on which a cereal bowl is placed to show animated sharks swimming around it and recognizing that a sporting event is being recorded and having digital confetti fall when a team scores. Facebook pointed out that it put a lot of work into making some of the algorithms powering such features efficient enough to run smoothly on an average smartphone. Snap will likely have a hard time replicating Facebook's AI work. And even if it can, matching the developer/brand support Facebook's platform will see will be very tough.
Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) and perhaps Apple (AAPL) , each of which have big AI investments and developer ecosystems of their own, might have more success. But lacking Facebook's social clout, they'll have to come at it from a different angle, respectively baking features into iOS and Android camera apps and hoping those tools will be used more than Facebook's.
If Google/Apple create such features and they see strong uptake, Facebook won't be thrilled, since it would prefer that users spend as much time within its apps as possible, and since (as is already the case for Snapchat) there's room to monetize AR content via "sponsored" lenses, filters and perhaps information overlays. But it might not be too upset either, since chances are that much of the AR content created with a Google or Apple camera app will eventually end up on a Facebook platform. Just as long as it doesn't end up on, say, Snapchat or Twitter (TWTR) instead, the company can live with the outcome.