Facebook Goes Head-to-Head With Snapchat for the Future of the Camera

Snapchat’s name didn’t come up during Mark Zuckerberg’s address at Facebook’s developer conference on Tuesday, but the company’s presence was still felt regardless, since Facebook’s vision of the future consists largely of colonizing the ground already staked out by its smaller competitor.

This became immediately apparent even before the Facebook CEO started his keynote, when Snap Inc. announced that it has added 3D “lenses” or filters to its Snapchat app, which will allow users to combine virtual elements like rainbows with real-world locations.

Just hours after that news broke, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is rolling out a similar suite of 3D add-ons that combine the real world and the virtual, including ways of adding animated effects to real objects. Plants can be given virtual flowers, 3D games can be played on real tabletops, and virtual notes can be left in real locations.

The key insight behind all of this, the Facebook CEO said, is the idea that the near future of “augmented reality” is one in which the smartphone camera is the key interface, not the bulky headsets or eyeglasses that might be used for full-scale virtual reality.

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This fixation on the smartphone camera sounds very much like the gospel that Snap Inc. has been preaching for some time, even before it went public in a hotly anticipated $25-billion initial public offering. Snap has been referring to itself as “a camera company” rather than a messaging app since it first filed a prospectus, something that many observers seemed confused by.

What has become increasingly clear is that Snap doesn’t mean “camera company” in the sense of GoPro, the maker of wearable cameras that has lost much of its early luster, or Kodak. Instead, it means a company whose primary user interface is the camera, and everything that can be done with it.

Snap’s goofy “lenses” and filters, which allow users to make themselves look like dogs or cats, or add simulated rainbows pouring out of their mouths, looked a lot like meaningless baubles to some analysts of Snapchat’s popularity, but they were just the beginning. Both Snap and Facebook clearly see them as the early building blocks of an augmented-reality interface.

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Facebook has already duplicated virtually every one of Snap’s significant features, including the Stories function — which it has added not just to Facebook but to Instagram and WhatsApp as well — and the filters and lenses features. Now, the giant social network has made no secret of the fact that it is going after the smaller company’s future roadmap as well.

Going head-to-head with a behemoth like Facebook isn’t easy, which could help explain why Snap’s share price has weakened substantially since its IPO. After all, Zuckerberg’s empire has a market value that is 15 times larger, and has an audience of more than 1.8 billion.

At the same time, however, Snapchat and Facebook are very different animals — even Snapchat and Instagram, despite their many similarities, are different in some fundamental ways. For Facebook, everything is about public or semi-public sharing, whether it’s photos or videos or augmented reality games. Boosting public engagement is the company’s raison d’etre.

Snapchat, by contrast, doesn’t focus on public engagement at all. There isn’t even any way to share a Snap photo or video or story outside the platform, nor is there any way to track how many people have seen it or liked it or commented on it — things that Facebook and Instagram are obsessed with.

That raises at least the possibility that Snap and Facebook could develop along very similar lines when it comes to augmented camera-based reality features, with one using them for public purposes and the other for private ones. How investors — not to mention users — wind up valuing those two different approaches remains to be seen.

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