Facebook grows more distant from its origins as a simple social network every year. This week’s F8 developer conference made very clear (if it wasn’t enough already) that the company is now a globe-spanning octopus with tentacles in every pie. F8 topics of discussion included virtual reality, Messenger, giant internet-providing drones, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook.com, Facebook on iOS, Facebook on Android, and did not even touch on FB’s news industry plans. Here were a few of the highlights for me:

Oculus Chief Scientist’s Talk on “Why VR Will Matter To You

In any room full of nerds Oculus is always going to be a major point of excitement, and I have to say that Michael Abrash did a really fantastic job of explaining why he’s obsessed with VR and thinks its moment is finally coming, incorporating interactive optical illusions into his explanation of why current, fairly limited VR is already enough to fool the brain that it is somewhere else. (He also referenced Snow Crash, Ready Player One, and The Matrix as inspirations for his involvement in VR. Only two out of three of these works are dystopian.) It’s worth watching his full talk for the well-delivered explanations of various perceptual illusions alone.

There is nothing creepy about this graphic.

“React Native and Relay: Bringing Modern Web Techniques to Mobile”

Facebook released React two years ago and since then it has been adopted very widely, with many companies embracing it as their choice for the “view” layer of their web software, the part responsible for displaying interfaces and information to the user (and updating the display when that information changes). But that meant that Facebook was only making public one part of the way they build applications. Last year, they released the Flux pattern, which essentially takes care of the rest. Personally I wasn’t very excited about this at the time, because it did not do much of the work for you, instead leaving individual developers to implement the pattern how they sought fit, which could lead to confusion and duplication across code built by teams. Apparently this was one of the rationales behind Relay, which FB announced earlier in the year, engineers explained further at F8, and provides much more of a clear framework for building a full application.

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Relay isn’t quite ready for release, but there was one big, exciting release announcement: React Native, which allows building native apps in Javascript and is an attempt to finally solve the problem of how to use the same set of technologies to build both mobile apps and websites. Facebook famously engaged in ill-f8ed experiments addressing this in the past, and React Native is a huge effort aimed at correcting prior shortfalls and achieving a Venn diagram of development speed, transferability of skills, and responsiveness. I cannot wait to “hack on this”, as the natives (and Zodiac killer) say here in San Francisco.

Facebook Messenger Platform Announcements

On its own, Facebook’s decision to open up Messenger as a platform is very significant, adding a huge distribution channel for apps that choose to let their users share to it and making the chat experience more visual. But it was also interesting how Messenger head David Marcus framed the choice to open up the platform: as an attempt to solve problems with digital communication, specifically the inability to share emotion: “we tap into emotions to communicate our needs... but over the last century and a half, we developed a lot of technologies to communicate over large distances... while those inventions are great... we left something behind.”

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If we take this statement at face value and not just as a marketing claim, a snotty rejoinder is tempting. “Here comes Facebook, a lumbering impersonal entity that thinks it can optimize human interaction as if it were an algorithm.” One could mention the millennia of writers for whom the written word has worked perfectly well.* But to do this is to ignore the fact that visual communication is a clear long-term trend, and one that does serve the goal of communicating emotion and ideas in a way that many are incapable of doing through writing. Having worked on several international development teams where a good number of people did not share a first language, I can attest to the fact that images, GIFs, and yes, “memes”, can make many day-to-day interactions more human, communicating personality and sentiment that would only otherwise only be visible face-to-face. There is a kind of elitism and small-mindedness in the notion that everyone should be able to communicate tone clearly through a common written language. We are all teens now and Facebook is smart to embrace this.

Deadmau5

Neither dead nor a mouse, and nothing to do with the acclaimed WWII graphic novel. Big ears and made a lot of noise.

* To this day there is still controversy over whether Plato was genuinely advocating various points he made or simply trolling. Some animated GIFs may have helped.

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