Facebook readies next game-changer: Mobile app will soon feature virtual and augmented reality, says senior executive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2015, 11:35pm

With 91 per cent of Facebook’s 4.7 million Hong Kong users now browsing the social network via its mobile app, the company is moving to integrate more features enhanced with virtual or augmented reality, a senior Facebook executive said on Tuesday.

The goal is to leverage the growing shift towards mobile to offer a more immersive and visual experience, said Dan Neary, the company’s vice president for Asia- Pacific.

“Hong Kong generally leads the way in many aspects of mobile,” he told local reporters.

“We believe that the platform will evolve into more immersive experiences, with things like virtual reality and augmented reality,” he added.

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Facebook took its first steps towards creating more immersive video experiences by allowing selected partners to upload 360-degree videos to Facebook in September. Users can choose which angle they wish to view from by tilting their mobile device while the video is playing.

The California-based social networking giant acquired Oculus in 2014. Its Oculus Rift headset allows users to view videos in virtual reality, and consumers are expected to be able to get their hands on one in the first quarter of 2016.

However, Neary would not be drawn on what specific plans Facebook has to make virtual reality a bigger part of its overall user experience.

“Virtual reality has the potential to be another platform by which people connect, but it’s still in the early stages,” said Neary, who also declined to reveal if the Oculus Rift headset will be made available to consumers in Asia-Pacific upon its debut.

While social networking with virtual reality may still seem to be a little out of reach, Facebook has made strides in keeping its platform interactive.

This month, it made its Instant Articles, an interactive media format that loads in a fraction of a second, available for publishers in the region.

Over 20 media partners in 11 countries including Hong Kong, Singapore, and China will publish content using this format, including the South China Morning Post.

Facebook’s attempts to create a more interactive experience are also tied to its goal of keeping users glued to its app longer in the hope they click on more ads, which account for 95 per cent of its revenue.

In Hong Kong, Facebook is trying out a new advertising format with select partners. Its canvas ads are immersive, full-page ads that allow users to purchase items from advertisers without leaving the Facebook app.

Neary said most people spend half their time on their phones on their favourite app.

“Mobile is app-driven. Unless you have one of the top apps, it is difficult to get top engagement,” he said.

“The time lost in transitioning from one app to another is effectively lost revenue,” said Shiv Putcha, an analyst at market research firm IDC.

Neary said Facebook helps businesses in China to market themselves to the rest of the world through its office in Hong Kong, even though the social network has been blocked in mainland China since 2009.

Neary declined to comment on whether or how Facebook plans to re-enter the Chinese market.

Facebook-owned Instagram launched a global ad service in Hong Kong and other cities and countries in September to further boost revenue.