April 19, 2019
Social giant Facebook confirmed a report that it is working on developing its own voice assistant. Originally, two former Facebook employees described the plans to CNBC, which broke the news. The company has been developing its own voice assistant since early 2018 in its augmented reality/virtual reality group based in Redmond, Washington. Facebook Assistant and AR/VR director Ira Snyder leads a team that has been “contacting vendors in the smart speaker supply chain,” according to sources.
CNBC reports, “it’s unclear how exactly Facebook envisions people using the assistant, but it could potentially be used on the company’s Portal video chat smart speakers, the Oculus headsets or other future projects.” Facebook will be entering a competitive and well-established arena, in which, said eMarketer, Amazon holds a 67 percent market share and Google holds 30 percent.
Facebook started selling its Portal video chat device in November, which lets users “initiate very simple commands” and includes Amazon’s Alexa for “more complex tasks.” In 2015, the company released M, an AI assistant for Messenger, but “but the project depended heavily on the help of humans” and was ended last year.
The Verge reports that Facebook’s work on a voice assistant “indicates Facebook isn’t giving up on a vision it first put out years ago” with the M assistant for Messenger.
The company mentioned that the upcoming voice assistant “is focusing less on messaging and more on platforms … [with] hands-free interaction, via voice control and potentially gesture control,” adding that the assistant “may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products.” That point brings into question of whether Facebook plans to market the product as a competitor to existing, dominant voice assistants.
Instead, notes The Verge, the development highlights “the goals of Facebook’s new approach to experimental technology,” as evidenced by the AR/VR hardware group, which developed the Portal video chat device. It also now includes “the remnants of Facebook’s disbanded Building 8, a secretive division formerly run by former DARPA director and Google employee Regina Dugan, who left the company in late 2017.”
A second division, Facebook Reality Labs, is led by “video game pioneer Michael Abrash, who became a Facebook employee by way of Oculus and now holds the title of chief scientist at the VR company.” The Verge states, “it seems the Facebook AI assistant is being jointly built by both teams, with Snyder seemingly holding positions at both divisions.”