Did Facebook Just Save Virtual Reality?


If you haven’t noticed it yet, you will soon. Facebook has just released 3D image capabilities to all users. The feature adds a layer of depth to photos as you scroll through your newsfeed. The company has proposed 3D photos as a new way to share your memories with a fun, lifelike dimension. In essence, the photos change perspective in response to your movements, as if the photo is a window looking into a tiny diorama.  


What are 3D Photos?  

Instead of using contrasting colors to create an illusion of depth, 3D Photos puts cameras and neural networks to work, bringing scenes to life, with depth and movement. Using the dual cameras at the front of many smartphones to capture the images (iPhone 7 Plus will be the oldest apple model with these capabilities), 3D photos can be viewed on the Facebook mobile app, the Oculus Go VR headset and Oculus Rift. Scrolling and tilting your device reveal the range of depth and which slightly changes the perspective. It’s a small leap, but this technology has big connotations for the future.  


How do they work? 

The first version of the software used a single camera to capture an entire scene using a specific movement pattern. After analyzing how distances change shape and perspective when the camera moves, the scene can be translated into a 3D image. The single-camera process takes time and processing power beyond the capacity of most phones. So, taking advantage of the already existing dual-camera features, the team at Facebook came up with a better way to communicate depth to the 3D image program.  

Capturing images with two cameras at the same time means the depth data is less confused and programs require far less processing power to develop the dimensional shapes. A phone’s dual camera will take two images at the same time, from slightly different angles. From these two images, the phone determines a “depth map” that helps calculate the distance of each point in your image from the lens. It’s the same technology that allows cameras to blur the background of a photo in portrait mode. From there, the program stitches the photos together. Artificial Intelligence smooths the shapes to provide a responsive image viewable through a VR headset.  


Why do 3D Photos Matter?  Anyone Can Create 3D Content.

Before now, Virtual Reality headsets provided two content options. One could purchase expensive content packages or view flat images and video. The problem? VR content is extremely difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to produce. Very often the content is limited, and once the novelty has worn thin, it doesn’t offer much value to a user. Alternatively, one could browse the internet, looking at the same 2-dimensional content pieces as you would on a phone or laptop, but the experience is far from transformational.  

To view 3D photos, you only need to scroll through your Facebook feed. No need to download any new plug-ins or learn any new programs. As you scroll past, the photos slightly change their perspective, making them instantly differentiated from the rest of the content.  

Facebook 3d images will democratize the creation of Virtual Reality content. This feature is the beginning of a user’s ability to develop his own VR content. There will be no need to rely exclusively on companies willing to invest in generating this content or to pay exorbitant prices for programs to provide similar capabilities for developing VR content. Facebook has already made the tool to available to us for free.   

The feature isn’t perfect. If you have eyes, you can see the differences between these photos and the real world. But this is an unbelievable start and we can’t wait to see where this technology takes interactive content development.