When Facebook releases its fourth-quarter earnings results on Wednesday, it is likely to announce it shows well over eight billion videos a day. It is certainly a big number, but video is most likely a means to an end for Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, says he believes virtual reality will become a widespread computing platform that includes communications, artificial intelligence and voice-activated interactions. He bought Oculus Rift, the maker of virtual reality goggles, for $2 billion to capitalize on that potential.
Video is a building block toward that virtual reality work.
In late 2015, Facebook announced enhanced “360 video,” which is shot with a special camera and rendered so a viewer can manipulate the image to see moving action in every direction.
“There is a shift happening in the business,” said Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering. “Facebook started with text, then photos showed up. Now there are phones always with you with good cameras. People can capture more of their lives in a real times way, much more expressively than a photo and a caption.”
Presumably, these immersive videos will also hold the attention of high-value advertisers.
Building out a network that can handle this load of dense video costs billions of dollars, however. And that is before running a big virtual reality system.
But Mr. Zuckerberg faced a similar challenge when he built Facebook’s global computer network and is now following a similar playbook.
Facebook is adept at open sourcing, or donating for public use, technologies like computer hardware. Much the way open-source software sped development of so-called cloud computing, open-source hardware meant more engineers tackling problems like computer server design.
It is now video’s turn. Last Thursday, Facebook held at its headquarters an all-day event for about 300 engineers from video-related companies like Netflix, Yahoo, Akamai and even YouTube. Facebook talked about technologies in virtual reality, streaming and artificial intelligence related to video.
“From our experience, innovation happens faster in the open,” Mr. Parikh said. “Everything we’re doing in video, live-streaming, 360, all the technology we’re doing in our network, our data centers — that is all heading towards having these experiences in virtual reality.”
Facebook is also looking at ways to make its 360 technology cheaper and more accessible, possibly even within a smartphone. Mr. Parikh declined to comment on these moves.
Facebook also wants to get an even bigger global audience by lowering the cost of connecting to the Internet. While computers run lots of open source hardware and software, related gear in telecommunications has tended to be proprietary and expensive.
On Wednesday, the Open Compute Project, the hardware design sharing group, announced it would move into open sourcing telecommunications gear. AT&T, Verizon and Deutsche Telekom were among the companies signing up.
“A lot of Facebook’s story going forward will be making hardware and software work together with greater efficiency,” said Jason Taylor, who is Facebook’s vice president of infrastructure and the president of the Open Compute Project. “We’re not interested in being a telecom operator, but in our mission to connect the world we need everyone to come together.”