Facebook and the machines: 360-degree cameras, Live video APIs just the start

13 Apr 2016

New eyes on the world: Facebook's new 360-degree camera has 17 cameras capable of capturing 4K and 8K video

Last night at F8, Facebook revealed a gorgeous 360-degree camera that it described as the most perfect camera ever made. In doing so, it confirmed Mark Zuckerberg’s deepest desire: to be a big noise in hardware in the next 10 years.

Will they or won’t they? That was the question tech media asked itself around the earliest F8 events a few years ago, when Facebook made awkward attempts at creating a user interface for smartphones that pretty much went on to become the fabric of how we use Messenger today.

The idea of a Facebook smartphone was enticing but never came to be, but you always got the sense that Zuckerberg wanted to unleash his army of clever engineers and coders on hardware, but the bigger kids, aka Apple and Samsung, would never let him near their sandpit.

Facebook bought Oculus VR two years ago for $2bn and the first Oculus Rift headsets have been winding their way to early adopters in recent weeks.

But, at F8 last night (12 April), what stole the show wasn’t a VR headset per se, but the eyes of future headsets, drones and humans.

Zuckerberg announced the reference design for a high-end, 3D, 360-video capture system called Facebook Surround 360 and announced plans to release it as an open-source project on GitHub. It also revealed Facebook360, a new way for publishers and content creators to share stories in 360-degree video.

‘A lot of things that we think about as physical objects today, like a TV to display an image, will just be $1 apps in the app store’

The device, shaped like a flying saucer, has a 17-camera array and can capture images and videos in 360 degrees – just ripe for the world of VR we are entering into.

The reason Facebook is open sourcing the camera and the software is to accelerate the growth of what it calls the 3D-360 ecosystem.

Facebook says the stitching code drastically reduces post-production time and the system exports 4K, 6K and 8K video for each eye.

The 8K videos double industry standard output and can be played on Gear VR with Facebook’s custom Dynamic Streaming technology.

“Building on top of an optical flow algorithm is a mathematically rigorous approach that produces superior results,” explained Brian K Cabral, director of engineering at Facebook.

“Our code uses optical flow to compute left-right eye stereo disparity. We leverage this ability to generate seamless stereoscopic 360 panoramas, with little to no hand intervention.”

It’s all about video as Facebook reveals Live API

Flanked by a drone that videoed the audience in real-time, Zuckerberg also introduced Facebook’s Live API, a new way for developers and media to create new video experiences on the 1.5bn-person strong social network.

As Zuckerberg demonstrated, the Live API will make it possible for device manufacturers like drone maker DJI, for example, to integrate Live video into their latest products.

“In the short time since we’ve rolled out Facebook Live to people and publishers around the world, we’ve seen incredible adoption, creativity and engagement,” said Daniel Danker, product manager at Facebook.

“Media organisations are inventing new formats on Facebook and experimenting with ways to create more engaging experiences with their audiences. We’ve been inspired by the innovation we’ve seen so far, and we know it’s only the beginning.”

Facebook’s hardware endgame – VR will augment your reality

It feels like Facebook is cherrypicking the best of all strategies employed by tech rivals in terms of open source (Google), partner networks (Microsoft) and closed ecosystems (Apple) to speed up the development of its vision for the future of computing.

In doing so, it is likely Facebook is articulating a future where physical objects today will be just apps in the future and, instead of today’s world of displays, the future will be shaped by lens technology.

The next technology arms race could centre on social networks where people hang out in virtual spaces, attend physical football matches virtually through VR and enjoy 360-degree experiences as if they are really there.

Consider the 360-degree camera, Oculus Rift and Live video API as far flung parts of a wider tapestry that will need to be stitched together over the course of the next decade. That will require an effort of developers and businesses far bigger than any force Zuckerberg can muster directly from Menlo Park, Dublin or elsewhere.

“It’s going to take a long time to make this work,” Zuckerberg said.

“But when we get to this world, a lot of things that we think about as physical objects today, like a TV to display an image, will just be $1 apps in the app store,” Zuckerberg said.

“This is the vision, this is what we’re trying to get to in the next 10 years.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years