Facebook sent reporters scrambling to process a virtual big data workload of news April 12 on Day 1 of its yearly F8 Conference on the waterfront at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
While the social network was tight-lipped ahead of time on the bulk of the news items, at least one had been anticipated by a few insiders: That being a new Messenger Platform for developers that includes bots and a Send/Receive API. Indeed, a beta program for so-called Chatbots was announced at the conference.
By providing these new bot components, Facebook is basically opening up the Messenger platform to make it possible for users to message businesses and buy products or services—not unlike messenging friends to arrange a night out at the movies.
Chatbots can provide anything from automated subscription content—such as weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages—all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them. More on this in a minute.
In other announcements, Facebook:
--unveiled a new 360-degree 3D camera, the Surround 360, to use with its Oculus Rift VR headset;
--is expanding in a big way its main developer tool package;
--opened its Instant Article feature to all users;
--announced a new 10-year plan of priorities for expansion of product and services development.
Chatbots are interactive software apps powered by artificial intelligence that are designed to simulate human conversation. They are coming into play more and more on messaging services to perform simple tasks.
While they are not yet common in the U.S. and Europe, chat bots have become popular in Asia, mostly in services such as WeChat.
Chatbots will enable users to deploy Messenger to buy products and for businesses to sell items and offer customer support right on Facebook, instead of customers having to search for customer-service 800 numbers or find email support on specific Websites or apps.
Starting April 12, Messenger users have a half dozen more bots on Messenger to try, with another dozen or more coming soon.
Other chatbots will allow users to interact with online services, such as messaging a Google delivery courier to buy your groceries at Target or Safeway. News articles from your trusted news outlets can be sent to you in messages; you can order takeout food and have it delivered using Messenger.
"We think you should message a business just the way you would message a friend," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on stage. "To order flowers on 1-800-Flowers, you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again.
"I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business. And no one wants to install an app for each business."
Here's another example: Users can send a message to mobile shopping sites for an apparel item, such as a baseball team logo jacket. The bot will ask you what your top-line budget is, and then show you some options from several competing sites. Once you've decided, then you then can place the order for the L.A. Dodgers weather jacket from inside the Messenger app.
This all might become a shock to users who might still be learning the ropes of desktop Website sales pages. If they're not comfortable with all of this new-fangled e-commerce, they can touch a button to block messages from businesses if they choose to do so.
Facebook Messenger is used by 900 million people at least monthly worldwide and by 50 million businesses. Early big-name partners in the messaging app include Bank of America, CNN, eBay, HP, Staples, StubHub, Thrillist and Zendesk.
Facebook's Messenger business model is a bit unclear at this time, but Product Manager David Marcus said the company is not focused on making money on it just yet.
"In the future, if we have enough really awesome experiences between businesses and people, I am sure we will figure out a way to monetize at some point," Marcus said.
Surround 360 Camera Reference Design
No, Facebook isn't going into the imaging hardware business just yet. Its Surround 360 camera is a strictly reference design for high-end video capture. The social network has developed the camera as an open source platform for developers to use as a model; the reference design is scheduled for publication on GitHub this summer, the company said.
The round-the-corner-and-more camera features a 17-camera array: 14 wide-angle cameras along its circumference, a fisheye camera looking upward and two more cameras on the bottom.
Using new cloud-based software, Facebook said its camera also can collate and render the 360-degree footage in real time. The resulting imaging is meant to be seen using a VR headset; movies generally render at 8K for each eye and at a smooth 60 frames per second.
The camera resembles a small "flying saucer." Facebook claims the Surround 360 is the best-designed camera of its kind with the ability to record for multiple hours without overheating.