Facebook Puts Content First with 3D Photos

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Facebook created a stir recently when TechCrunch reported that the world’s largest social network is working on the development of augmented reality (AR) glasses. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg had suggested that the creation of AR eyewear was on the horizon. In late October Facebook’s head of augmented reality Ficus Kirkpatrick seemingly confirmed the development of AR eyewear in a conversation with TechCrunch’s Josh Constine:

“Yeah! Well of course we’re working on it,” Facebook’s head of augmented reality Ficus Kirkpatrick told me when I asked him at TechCrunch’s AR/VR event in LA if Facebook was building AR glasses. “We are building hardware products. We’re going forward on this . . . We want to see those glasses come into reality, and I think we want to play our part in helping to bring them there.”

But for my money, Facebook’s launch of 3D photos is the far more exciting development.

3D for Real

I used to think 3D was a joke. I cringed at every 3D movie I’d ever seen with the exception of Avatar. Wearing ridiculous glasses to see Captain Jack Sparrow mug and stumble his way through the high seas felt like an extreme form of torture. I never took 3D ViewMaster photos very seriously. And I thought those 3D photo crystals of babies and smiling couples locked in an embrace looked flat-out creepy.

But then along came Facebook 3D photos. Boy, they changed my mind in an instant.

Months ago, Facebook had announced that 3D photos were coming, but no one knew what to make of the development. We just knew Facebook was going to apply artificial intelligence to make our photos pop on our news feeds. It was hard to get excited about 3D photos at the time. We could not literally picture how our photos would change.

On October 11, Facebook began rolling out the feature with a chirpy blog post that explained:

Today we’re starting to roll out 3D photos, a new way to share your memories and moments in time with a fun, lifelike dimension in both News Feed and VR. With technology that captures the distance between the subject in the foreground and the background, 3D photos bring scenes to life with depth and movement.

By October 12, I was experimenting with the feature. I dug into my personal inventory of photos in Portrait mode on my iPhone X. (iPhone Portrait mode is the only format that works with the feature so far). I posted shots of people and artwork that burst off the screen. As I soon discovered, the experience of actually displaying a 3D photo on my feed was more than fun – it was phenomenal. A snake sculpture seemed to swivel its head right at you. An owl with piercing eyes looked like it was going to take flight. Within seconds I knew Facebook had done something remarkable.

And my Facebook friends agreed. Engagement on my personal feed and professional pages I manage exploded, mostly with comments like “HOW DID YOU DO THIS?” and “This is so cool!”

I’ve never seen a Facebook feature inspire so many positive and awe-struck comments — ever.

My Facebook friends who have the feature are experiencing the same reactions. And quickly, the format has become a proving ground for photographers, such as one who figured out how to create his own Facebook 3D format with a drone shot. If 3D photos were more widely available, who knows how viral they’d become?

Brands Should Get on the Bandwagon

As I discussed in a recently published column for Adweek, 3D photos provide incredible opportunities for brands to create more immersive experiences on Facebook. For example:

  • Any theme park could make their pages more of an exciting you-are-there experience by making their attractions pop off the page. Disneyworld could practically make Mickey Mouse jump into your living room to greet you.
  • Car dealers could showcase their inventory more effectively. A powerful Dodge Challenger almost screams out for a 3D view.
  • Museums could make new exhibits more appealing by offering 3D perspectives. 3D works especially well with sculptures.

And brands agree. As a brand manager for Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light Ritas told Digiday, 3D photos are “inherently thumb-stopping. The visual moves and changes encourage people to tap into and expand more. Long-form video has been declining as attention span [in News Feed declines]. 3D photos is the logical next step as a format that grabs your attention,”

There’s one problem with 3D photos: the format works only with dual lens iPhones such as the iPhone X. But if I were a brand running a Facebook page, investing into a dual lens camera to make my Facebook content stand apart would be a no-brainer. It’s not just that 3D photos look exciting. They also:

  • Require no one to wear any special equipment.
  • Are easy to view on a mobile phone – in fact, they look especially exciting on a mobile phone, as they practically take over smaller screens.
  • Are easy to upload so long as you have a dual lens camera.
  • Do not require anyone to play a special game or some other kind of custom-designed experience to enjoy.

On the other hand, Facebook is going to have work very hard to convince people to use AR eyewear. Right off the bat, AR eyewear suffers from the major disadvantage of forcing people to wear something to experience. The moment you ask your customers to put on a special pair of eyewear, you’re creating a burden. And so you’d better offer a payoff – which leads to another major problem: we have no compelling content to lure us into an AR experience on Facebook. And stories about eyewear simply put the cart before the horse by focusing on the technology, not the content.

All about the Content

3D photos are all about content. Facebook isn’t forcing you to adopt technology to enjoy them. Nor is Facebook selling the technology behind the experience. You can learn all you want about the AI behind the 3D photos if you really want to do so, but Facebook is wisely leading the conversation with the experience. Next logical steps for 3D photos:

  • Make the technology work with more devices.
  • Expand 3D photos to Instagram.

Whenever Facebook focuses on helping us create great content in visually engaging ways – whether via 3D photos or video livestreaming – Facebook gives people more reasons to stay on the platform. Whenever Facebook talks about technology first, Facebook leaves its 2 billion users behind. I’m eager to learn about AR eyewear when the conversation focuses on content, not the glasses.


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