How Will Zuckerberg Rule the World? By Giving Facebook’s Tech Away
When Mark Zuckerberg took his first steps, his parents marked the date in a good old fashioned baby book. Years later, when one of his cousins walked for the first time, mom and dad captured the moment with a photo. And just recently, when Zuckerberg’s niece learned to walk, his sister caught it on video.
But with his own daughter, Max, the Facebook founder and CEO aims to go one level higher. He wants to capture all 360 degrees of the moment using the 17 lenses of a stereoscopic 3D camera. “When Max takes her first step, we’ll be able to capture that whole scene, not just write down the date or take a photo or take a little 2-D video,” he says. “The people we want to share this with…can go there. They can experience that moment.”
Today at Facebook’s F8 conference in San Francisco, the centerpiece of its year, Zuckerberg and company revealed that they’ve spent the past year building such a camera, a device they call the Facebook Surround360. Zuckerberg plans on putting one in his home as Max, now four months old, reaches walking age. But he doesn’t just want one for himself. Facebook plans on freely sharing the camera’s designs with the world at large, including not only the hardware schematics but the rather complex software needed to stitch the camera’s images into a sweeping, 360-degree whole.
That’s right, Facebook has designed a 360-degree video camera, and it’s giving the designs away. The plan is part of Zuckerberg’s sweeping effort to move the Internet beyond text and photos and video to a new mode of communication. This begins with 360-degree video, but the hope is that it extends to the kind of the virtual reality offered by the company’s Oculus headset. “Over time, people get richer and richer tools to communicate and express what they care about,” Zuckerberg tells WIRED. “What’s next? You’re clearly going to be able to experience whole scenes, whether that’s captured through some kind of 360-degree camera or it’s computer-generated, as games are.”
Other companies have much the same vision. Nokia and Jaunt have built their own 360-degree cameras. And like Facebook, Google has built one in an effort to accelerate the use of stereoscopic video and VR via its own massive online services (though Google is selling its camera through GoPro). The difference is that Facebook is giving the designs away—and doing so without delay. (The company says they’ll be posted to Github sometime this summer). This is what sets Facebook apart from all other companies pushing 360-degree video and VR, including Microsoft and Apple. An open source stereoscopic video camera may seem like a strange tangent for the company. After all, it’s a social networking giant—not some sort of underground hardware maker. But Zuckerberg sees this as just another example of Facebook trying to feed its central mission: to “connect the world.”
Most companies, he says, define themselves by a craft, such as making the best animated movies or building beautifully designed products or solving the world’s hardest engineering problems. But, he explains, there’s another way to build a company. You can build it around a goal.
Facebook’s goal, as we so often hear from Zuckerberg and his lieutenants, is to connect everyone in the world, to give them the tools they need “to share anything they want with anyone they want in a natural way.” If you orient a company toward a goal like this, you end up going down all sorts of paths, some of which seem strange and unrelated. “But they’re actually incredibly focused in terms of the mission,” Zuckerberg says. And that’s why it’s not so odd that Facebook gives away so much of the technology it develops. “The real goal is to build the community,” Zuckerberg says. “A lot of times, the best way to advance the technology is to work on it as a community.”
Such is the message Zuckerberg hopes to deliver in describing everything that the company will reveal at F8—and everything it has done in years past. The message is audacious, self-centered, and idealistic, but it’s also quite powerful—a guide not only for where Facebook is headed but for how the Internet as a whole will evolve in the years to come.
Share Anything. Share Everything
Giving its tech away is hardly a new tack for the company. More than five years ago, Facebook started open sourcing much of the specialized software it built to drive its online empire, including sweeping database and analysis tools like Cassandra and Hadoop. Then it started sharing designs for the hardware it built to prop up this empire, including computer servers and networking gear, even entire data centers. And just recently, the company said it would give away all sorts of hardware it’s been building as a way of delivering Internet access to all the people on Earth who don’t have it, including drones and communications lasers and wireless antennas.
To the uninitiated, such moves may seem strange. Facebook builds its own servers and networking gear? It builds drones that can deliver Internet access to the hinterlands? It’s giving away the designs for all this stuff—free of charge? But in each case, Zuckerberg and company are trying to advance their own agenda by pushing others in the same direction. Facebook built its own servers because using commercial gear was too expensive and too difficult. If it can get others using the same designs, it can drive down the cost of that gear even further. If it can get others to expand the Internet via drone and satellite and laser, it can expand the use of Facebook itself.
The same goes for its new 360-degree camera. Zuckerberg wants 360-degree video and VR on Facebook. This, he believes, will keep people coming back to the social network while pushing them towards a new social networking future. The best way to accelerate this adoption of 360-degree video is to get as many cameras as possible out into the world. Today, the Facebook Surround360 camera is for professionals—and Facebook CEOs with four-month-olds—but in the future, Zuckerberg wants it in the hands of everyone.
And the camera will hardly be the last thing Facebook gives away. This morning, Zuckerberg went on to say that Facebook, under the aegis of its Connectivity Lab—the engineering hothouse where it’s building those drones and lasers—has designed two different wireless antennas for improving Internet service in both urban and rural areas. These are called Terragraph and ARIES, and though he didn’t share too many details, you can bet that the company will eventually open source the designs, encouraging telecoms and Internet service providers to embrace these antennas and use them to bootstrap new networks across the planet. That’s what Facebook promised to do with a new not-for-profit it calls the Telecom Infrastructure Project, or TIP—another in a long list of efforts to give technology away and push it across the world.
What if We Give It Away
Despite all this apparent generosity, some point out that Facebook isn’t necessarily advancing the state of the art with every technology it builds. For some, projects like the 360-degree video camera and the Terragraph wireless antenna are examples of Facebook venturing into areas where others are already working to create similar tech. Erik Ekudden, a vice president of tech strategy at Ericsson, a company that builds much of the world’s wireless gear, points out that Ericsson and others have long been pushing the world towards the next generation of wireless antennas.
But much the same could be said when the company started building servers and networking gear, which eventually drove major transformations across those industries. Zuckerberg says that his company is building all this new stuff because others aren’t necessarily building what is needed. “We need certain technologies to exist in the world, so we will build those,” he says. “We’re not selling [servers] or cameras or connectivity services. But if no one else is building them, we’re going to. They need to exist.”
Pushing such tech to extremes—and perhaps more importantly, pushing it into the real world—is no simple task. Koji Gardner, Jaunt’s vice president of hardware, says it’s extremely difficult to build a system that can stitch together stereoscopic 360-degree images. But Facebook has shown over the years that it has knack not only for building such complex tech but creating a market for it. The key to creating those markets is often the power of open source—a suddenly pervasive idea that can accelerate the progress of new technologies. Google builds 360-degree cameras and balloons that stream Internet signals to Earth from the stratosphere. But it hasn’t moved to open source them (at least not yet). Facebook has.
The Internet Ideal
Of course, Facebook’s big ideas can fail too. Facebook email never worked out. The company’s mobile “apperating system,” Facebook Home, didn’t work either. And Free Basics—its service to bring a limited menu of free Internet services to the developing world—spawned a huge backlash in the world’s second-largest country. If you try new things, some are going to fail, and Zuckerberg admits as much. The 360-degree camera may fail. So too may the wireless antenna. So may its big bet on bots as the future of a post-app world.
Zuckerberg believes that such bets are worth taking—not only to expand Facebook and improve its bottom line, but to, well, make the world a better place. “For so much of the last century, the world has been getting more connected and there are so many reasons for why that’s good,” he explains. This has been his mantra for years, but he believes the notion is particularly important today.
“This funny thing is happening now—really in the last couple of years—where the political rhetoric and the decisions that are being made around the world are really starting to go against this, stuff like the refugee crisis or people wanting to shut down borders or increasing censorship of the Internet to block new ideas,” he says. He doesn’t mention Donald Trump, but when he talks of shutting down borders, this is what comes to mind.
It’s typical of Zuckerberg’s idealistic (and sometimes naive) view of the Internet and its role in the world. He even goes so far as to say that the Internet can free young people from the type of insular environments that foster extremism. “I look at a lot of the big world problems, and I see them as problems of connecting people and giving them opportunities,” he says.
I point out that the Internet can also breed Trump supporters–that it can breed terrorists. And he acknowledges this. But he says that as time goes on, a more connected world brings us closer and closer to enlightenment. “It’s a question of progress,” he says. “The more trade and the more understanding we have and the more people can get each other’s perspective, we will move incrementally towards a better and better outcome for everyone.”
The power of interconnection is an ideal that’s practically as old as the Internet itself. But it’s far from a certainty. “Insofar as the Internet is a marketplace for ideas and knowledge, that’s a good thing. But what sort of knowledge does it promote and encourage? That’s the hard thing,” says Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Internet of Us. “And is the free flow of ideas always helped by social media? In some senses, it is. But it’s also sometimes impeded by social media.” The rise of Trump is a prime example
But Lynch says Zuckerberg’s idealism isn’t entirely off-base. An open Internet, he agrees, is ultimately a good thing. And however you view the power of the Internet as a whole—or Facebook in particular—Zuckerberg has already shown an enormous talent for expanding both into places few others foresaw. Odds are, he’ll do it again, in one way or another. He might even put a 360-degree camera in your living room.