Facebook is looking to build in AR.

This week, it became clear that Facebook wants augmented reality to move closer to the core of the Instagram experience.

Amid updates around privacy, app redesigns and other launches revealed at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, the social media giant also said that its camera effects toolset — Spark AR — is cracking wide open for the photo-sharing platform this summer.

According to Matt Roberts, Facebook product manager and lead for the Spark AR team, it’s a natural fit. “Spark AR is already available to everybody on Facebook, but Instagram is a slightly different audience,” he told WWD. “It’s a place where people are sharing very visually, as the primary means of communication.”

Over the past year and a half, a steady stream of changes has broadened the reach of influencers and partner brands, up to and including in-app transactions. Shoppers can discover looks or search for styles, and pay for items without being thrown into a different app or webpage.

With Spark AR, Instagram not only ups the entertainment factor and creative juice, but it also sets up features like digital product try-ons.

Players like L’Oréal-owned Modiface and YouCam-creator Perfect Corp. have proven the demand and success for AR features in beauty, and others — from IKEA to Warby Parker — have embraced the tech for different categories. The complexity of apparel try-ons is another story, but ongoing in-store efforts, like magic mirrors, and online experiments reveal a deep desire to master it.

According to Roberts, the Spark AR team is up for this challenge. And it believes it will see the sort of massive usage it would take to ultimately make it all click.

The main premise of the toolset is that it doesn’t require software development skills, though experts can certainly customize aspects of it. Roberts sees the kit as “democratizing AR,” at least within Facebook’s — and now Instagram’s — walls.

WWD sat down with the Spark AR lead to learn more about the move and what it means for brands.

WWD: It’s very clear that Instagram’s extremely interested in shopping. How do you see Spark AR fitting into that? 

Matt Roberts: We believe the path to new kinds of retail experiences — or better outcomes for designers or retailers in reaching their customers — is going to involve a couple of different factors: One is, who is and how are people familiar with AR? What’s their sense of, when they’re seeing something in the cameras that they know, that that’s actually an interactive experience?

We see that today by introducing AR to as many people as possible through fun and playful experiences. A lot of this is happening now on sharing and social media through videos. Zuck [Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer] mentioned that over a billion people have used AR in the past year alone through Spark AR. And that’s important because, as people become more familiar with this experience, they’ll become better able to have higher-order, more sophisticated types of relationships with the creators of those experiences.

Today, that may be a funny face mask. In the future, it might be something where I’m having a serious evaluation of a product, or a different kind of communication. Or even learning something about a person, place or thing through AR. The path to get there involves having a lot of people using it, so that we understand exactly what’s working and what’s not.

And secondly, it involves building tools that everybody can use.

WWD: How do you see the cross section of fashion and beauty with AR? And what is Spark AR’s vision? What does it bring to the table? 

M.R.: We’re working with 20 brands right now on Facebook to do ads using AR. For example, beauty is a particularly interesting vertical for AR, because the technology is well-suited for trying on things like makeup or styling in a way that you can’t do through a conventional video or photographs.

You know, when you’re buying lipstick — you’re not buying the lipstick, you’re buying the look. And so that personalization, that customization, is something that is a unique capability of augmented reality.

When we talk to advertisers and brands, we hear pretty consistently a couple of things: One, they’re very interested in AR, not just as a novel technology, but for some very specific business problems that they have. AR allows you to have a more realistic preview of the product that you are trying. It gives the consumer more information and allows them to engage with it in a way that’s more immersive and more personalized than it would be if it’s just a photograph.

Second, it hopefully increases customer satisfaction with their purchase. If they have a better preview and experience, then they make a better decision about the products that are right for them. They’re more satisfied. And lastly, for brands, even if they can’t have a preview — you can still have a brand experience that connects customers to your products in a way that’s important.

Honestly, it’s very difficult to do things like cloth and fabric today. This is an example of a frontier that we’re going to be working really hard to improve over the coming years. But being able to remix your brand with the customer’s world…imagine an experience that evokes the spirit of the brand or the lifestyle that the brand’s synonymous with — you can deliver that in a way that customers really remix, make their own and share with other people.

For example, this past year, we worked with Gucci and Louis Vuitton on Instagram effects that basically expressed the brands themselves. We’ve also worked with other kinds of cultural brands — like, Coachella launched a Spark effect two weeks ago — and it extends across a lot of verticals. Game of Thrones had a really popular AR effect on Instagram.

Spark AR worked with Michael Kors on an augmented reality try-on for sunglasses. 

WWD: Do you see a future in which Spark AR could have a life beyond Facebook’s walls?

M.R.: I think companies have to ask themselves what kind of business they’re in. Are you in the AR business? If not, you might want to find a solution that’s going to solve that for you, so you could focus on your product and your customer. That’s actually how we think about Spark as a solution.

We really are focused on how to use AR in a useful way. AR, for the technology’s sake, is a classic trap. If you say, “Well, AR is cool, so we want to make AR things,” this is a circular kind of logic. You have to say, “Well, AR is cool because it’s going to help me buy product more easily” or “because this is gonna help me have more fun” or “because it’s going to help me find something or learn something.” These are the ways we talk about AR on our team and build things that will make them possible.

WWD: For third-party developers thinking about Spark AR in the mix alongside, say, Apple’s ARKit, what would you want them to know? 

M.R.: We actually have a huge audience of people who build with CAD [computer-assisted design] and find it very intuitive to work on Spark. [Think] graphic designer, a video editor, a 3-D artist, a photographer, a fashion designer, an interior designer. These are tools that are going to present familiar interfaces with GUI-based [graphical user interface] experiences that walk you through one step at a time, and have something that we call “progressive complexity.”

So you can get in, get a result really quickly, go through that cycle, publish it, get it on Facebook or Instagram really fast, and then go back and go deeper. You can then explore the community and find out what other people are building, learn from them how to do more advanced effects or more complicated graphic effects.

WWD: Which 20 brands are you working with and how are you working with them? 

M.R.: We’re currently working with them on a beta. During the conference, we mentioned Warby Parker and Pottery Barn. [According to a Facebook spokeswoman, the company is also working with Sephora, Michael Kors and Kylie Jenner.]

We launched this, actually, last year and we have some initial results. We’ve expanded and scaled it, so we’ve added more partners, we’ve created more AR experiences and we’re hoping to be able to take that even further this year.

WWD: Does anything stand out from that experience? 

M.R.: There’s a couple of things that work really well. Jewelry. Bags actually work surprisingly well, because if you think about the way you want to understand the look of a bag. It’s fairly easy to recognize, you can hold it in your hand. Scale (size) is a big aspect, as well as color and light.

So we’ve made a big investment in [what] we call “physically based rendering” or “light-based rendering.” And what that means is using the light that is actually present in the room. We simulate how that would look. So if you have metals or other kinds of materials that have a different sheen or kind of whole matte look, it’s going to look realistic.

One of the problems with 3-D graphics [is that] everything looks like plastic when you first start. And what we’ve done is taken an approach where we really get the physical properties of the fabrics and the metals and leathers and so forth. Much more realistic. That’s something we’re investing a lot in.

WWD: Bags, jewelry, eyeglasses — these are hard goods. Let’s talk about the challenges of AR in apparel. 

M.R.: These are big purchases, and there’s a trust factor — that the thing I saw is the thing that I got, and I’m happy with it. This is an important loop for us to close.

One other category that I am also personally excited about, because it’s extremely fun and I’ve seen some good effects, is hair.

We [have] some technology…It’s not quite available for everybody yet, but it allows you to, what we call “segment” or separate a face from hair or a body from a background. We can segment out people’s hair and change the color of the hair or change your hairstyle in actually a fairly believable way. This is something that I also think is going to open up new possibilities for how people are playing with their looks, or are experimenting with things, before they commit to a particular color or look or style.

That’s a big investment.

Think about how big beauty is, as a category, on something like Instagram. There are a couple of things that are just massive on Instagram, in terms of why people go to Instagram to use it. They want to find out about music. They want to find out about style. They want to find out about beauty — these are things where they can connect with these brands in a really direct way.

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