Snapchat beat Facebook in realizing the smartphone camera could do more than document memories. It could be a form of entertainment itself, letting users swap faces with friends or bring 3-D cartoons to life in the living room.
But despite his admittedly late start, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg expressed conviction Tuesday that his company soon will be at the cutting edge. That's because Facebook, unlike Snapchat, is planning to lean on its force of hundreds of thousands of app makers.
Zuckerberg is counting on them to help create augmented reality experiences in which users point their smartphone cameras at people, places and things to play games, learn about the world and goof around. He's also looking to app developers to make online messaging more intuitive.
If Facebook's community of partners such as Nike, Warner Bros. and Spotify succeed, nearly 2 billion people would find themselves spending longer spans inside the social media giant's family of apps. That could further stunt the growth of Snapchat maker Snap Inc., whose CEO, Evan Spiegel, broke ground with a camera-centric strategy.
"Even if we were a little slow to add cameras to our apps, I'm confident we're going to push this augmented reality platform forward," Zuckerberg told thousands of software programmers gathered at the company's annual technology conference in San Jose.
To Zuckerberg, augmented reality today means aiming a smartphone camera at just about anything and seeing virtual objects displayed on the screen. He showed how a family could play a video game in 3-D by holding a phone over a living room table. He pointed to a camera that recognized a bottle of wine and pulled up ratings and information about it on-screen. And he introduced the silliness of the technology with digitally rendered sharks circling around a bowl of cereal on the breakfast table.
Facebook is providing tools to app makers to develop their own effects. Its initial partners include Nike, video game developer Electronic Arts, trip-scheduling app TripIt and the Real Madrid soccer team.
Among what they'll be able to design are the face-altering masks and interactive illustrations that Snapchat popularized over the last year and a half. Snapchat and its advertisers offer about a dozen options a day, helping people sprout a taco hat or vomit rainbows from their mouth. Zuckerberg said Facebook eventually could provide thousands of choices. They could be revenue-generators someday too.
The company is taking a similar approach with its Messenger chat app. New integrations with apps such as Spotify, "Words with Friends," OpenTable and Delivery.com mean friends can share songs with each other without having to switch from Messenger to another app. They can consider dining options inside the app together. Artificial intelligence even will prompt them to order takeout if they're chatting about food — and each member's menu selections automatically would be combined into a group order.
"This is a great way to bring superpowers to a conversation, share more content and basically get things done," David Marcus, the Facebook executive in charge of messaging services, said in an interview last week.
Users don't have to download any extra software on their phones to take advantage of the new features. That means such systems within Messenger threaten to undercut the mobile app stores that have been increasingly lucrative to Google and Apple.
Facebook wouldn't make money off app sales or the transactions, instead generating revenue by selling ads within Messenger to prompt people to use certain services. Users also may begin encountering circular barcodes plastered on storefronts. They launch chat windows or experiences with businesses when scanned through Messenger's camera screen. By placing a unique barcode on each table, a restaurant theoretically could take orders, feedback and payment all through Messenger.
"If you create a lot of value in conversations, businesses will want to open more conversations," Marcus said.
Snap hasn't said whether it will emulate Facebook's playbook of widely inviting developers to add functionality to its app. If Snap doesn't, it could set up an interesting test: Will millions of consumers prefer the everything-store experience of Facebook or the more selective and curated offering of Snapchat?
Facebook faces some difficult decisions too. Its fast-growing WhatsApp and Instagram apps don't have platforms upon which developers can deeply integrate new features. Each of those apps operate independently of Facebook and Messenger, though they share user data to help sell ads.
Instagram's move to cop Snapchat's video-sharing features last year was linked to slower adoption of Snapchat. Bringing the simplest of augmented reality editing tools Zuckerberg described Tuesday to Instagram again could deliver another hit to Snapchat, which has about 158 million daily users (Instagram has at least twice as many; Facebook's main app boasts eight times that number).
Investors appeared to be rewarding Snap's lead in camera effects. Shares of the company increased 3.1% to $20.55 on Tuesday. Facebook shares fell after Zuckerberg's presentation, down 0.33% on the day to $140.96.
Zuckerberg originally had envisioned headsets and glasses quickly would replace smartphones as people's default computer. The belief played a big role in his $2-billion purchase in 2014 of Irvine virtual reality technology start-up Oculus VR. Now, he's acknowledging he not only overestimated virtual reality's short-term potential, but also underestimated the smartphone's ability to serve as a virtual veneer in the interim.
Facebook repeatedly has misjudged and mistimed technology shifts, including most famously its lackluster pace in pushing its community of browser game makers and advertisers to focus on mobile innovations. But sales and user growth have remained robust. And financial analysts have remained largely impressed with Zuckerberg's acquisitions and prognostications.
The 32-year-old still maintains glasses and contact lenses will be the screens of the future. Zuckerberg expects the need for physical goods to subside too. Why have TVs and chess boards when futuristic viewing devices can make them appear as computer-generated animations.
"If you have one takeaway today," he told the crowd Tuesday, "we're going to make the camera the first mainstream augmented reality platform."
2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with Snap and Facebook share prices.