Facebook's annual earnings call on Wednesday didn't come with any big surprises, that is, if you took everything at face value.
However, if you read between the lines, and paid close attention to the very specific and intentional language the company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, used, then a few things stood out that reveal exactly where Facebook intends to take its nearly 3 billion users in the next year.
As for Facebook's earnings, you won't be surprised to know that things are going quite well, with company revenue at $26.17 billion for the quarter, up 48% percent compared to last year. But you're here for the AR, so let's get to it.
To start off, Zuckerberg immediately made it clear that his primary focus areas right now are augmented reality and VR (in that order), because his very first comments hit upon those areas.
"Let's talk about building the next computing platform. I believe that augmented and virtual reality are going to enable a deeper sense of presence and social connection than any existing platform," said Zuckerberg. "They're going to be an important part of how we'll interact with computers in the future. So, we're going to keep investing heavily in building out the best experiences here, and this accounts for a major part of our overall R&D budget growth."
Those broad strokes are familiar refrains from the halls of Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters, but in recent months the company has backed up those stated commitments to AR and VR with concrete action.
"This quarter we shared more about our future investments, including neural interfaces for interacting with AR. And we started testing our new avatar system, which will be a key part of how people express themselves and connect," said Zuckerberg.
"Augmented and virtual reality, I have thought about for a long time, because I think that it's sort of the holy grail of delivering a sense of presence and the type of social experiences that you would want to build. So, right now, and I guess for the whole history of the company, we've been constrained to a web browser, and now, in some cases, these increasingly restrictive mobile app rules. But, I think that this future environment where you're going to be able to feel like you're really present with someone else, that's going to be really powerful. And it's going to unlock a bunch of experiences that we wanted to build for a long time, and that's what I'm really excited about."
Zuckerberg's mention of using immersive technology to extend Facebook's reach beyond mobile apps and web browsers makes sense, but it was a bit odd that he failed to ever mention the other hardware platform his company is using to deliver AR: Portal.
Next to smartphones and laptops, the common TV, the anchor of the Portal system, is one of the most ubiquitous consumer funnels primed for delivering more AR content—especially in this new era of remote working and socializing. But there was no mention of the product, so it may be time to begin wondering how strong the company is committing to truly building out the Portal product experience in the future.
Conversely, Zuckerberg was unusually bold in continuing to hype the company's upcoming AR smartglasses. Right now, they're known as Project Aria, and only being worn internally by Facebook employees. Additionally, the company has promised to unveil its smartglasses design collaboration with Ray-Ban later this year.
"I think virtual reality, the form factor constraints, I think, are a little less than what you're going to have in augmented reality, where in virtual reality, I think you need to get to a high-quality wireless experience. In augmented reality, you're going to really need a pair of glasses that look like normal looking glasses in order for that to hit a mainstream acceptance," said Zuckerberg. "And that, I think, is going to be one of the hardest technical challenges of the decade, it's basically fitting a supercomputer in the frame of glasses. I think that once that's achievable, the potential on that is going to be quite big."
But let's be honest, aside from the success of Oculus gaming, part of the reason Facebook is so excited about AR as the future is its ability to place a virtual layer over the real world to enable commerce and advertising experiences and analytics. Zuckerberg spoke to that vision, in his own way, during the call.
"Now, it's still primarily games. But, when we started on this journey, a lot of the reason why I said that I thought it made sense for us to invest in this is because I expect virtual and augmented reality to be some of the most social platforms that get built," said Zuckerberg. "And the fact that a number of the most engaging experiences on the platforms today are social and a lot of the top games are social, I think, is really promising. But also seeing things in terms of productivity, and like I mentioned, it's just really promising that you're seeing the early signs of this becoming a broader platform."
I've noted the lack of any Portal mentions, but what was also missing from Zuckerberg's sunscreen-laden lips was any mention of Spark AR, the company's augmented reality creation platform. Nevertheless, it's clear from his comments that Spark AR will be one of the tools employed on Facebook, Instagram, and Portal to give creators a path toward making a living from engaging and populating the social media giant's platforms.
"I think that a positive vision for the future of the economy is one where more people get to do creative work that they enjoy rather than jobs that they don't. And to get there, we need to build out the creative and monetization tools to support this creator economy," said Zuckerberg. "People create an incredibly diverse set of content across our services, from long form writing to live conversations to documentaries and augmented reality filters. And our goal is to support the full range of human expression, and to be the best platform for millions of creators to make a living."
In the end, as fascinating as AR and VR may be, what Zuckerberg seems to be envisioning is a world of avatars, immersive hardware content gates, and production tools that will create a self-sustaining loop of creation and commerce that allows Facebook to mostly just sit back and simply make sure the system doesn't break.
"Over time, I expect augmented and virtual reality to unlock a massive amount of value, both in people's lives and the economy overall," said Zuckerberg. "There's still a long way to go here, and most of our investments to make this work are ahead of us. But, I think that the feedback we're getting from our products is giving us more confidence that our prediction for the future here will happen and that we're focusing on the right areas."
Oh, and one more thing... what about cryptocurrency? Facebook's digital token, once called Libra, but now known as Diem, was another topic that wasn't fully addressed by Zuckerberg in his recent comments. When questioned on the topic of digital payments in this new creator ecosystem, Zuckerberg said, "Payments, both things like Facebook Pay and, eventually, Diem soon, I think is going to be a pretty big thing too... Commerce, across all these platforms is going to be very important. ln a platform that we're building like this, we want to enable payments very easily to make it to the economics all work out for developers."
Although the current Bitcoin surge has captured most of the crypto attention, stable coins like Facebook's upcoming Diem will almost certainly be the key to unlocking a lot of the value in the virtual worlds of AR and VR on Facebook's platform. NFTs have now shown us that the public is ready for a non-Bitcoin crypto asset (Ethereum) as a unit of trade in virtual assets. But when Facebook puts its social media might behind its Diem coin, the potential for the virtual assets and commerce on Instagram and Facebook to be leveraged in new ways could be explosive.
For now, Facebook is wisely moving quietly and speaking conservatively regarding its Diem plans, but if Spark AR is the augmented reality toolset, and Facebook and Instagram are the broad target AR platforms, then Diem could be the fuel, the oil, the digital lubricant that will kick Facebook's AR and VR vision into overdrive on the back of digital commerce. And that's all before we get Facebook smartglasses.