This year challenged us to reexamine innovation in the context of broader social challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic and environmental crises, for example, ushered in disruptions to life and work as we know them. These stories focused on innovative solutions for tackling the real-world issues we tried to make sense of, building the future of work, supporting humanitarian responses and our sustainability efforts, connecting the world, and creating accessible experiences that build community.
Here’s a look back at our most-read technology stories of 2020:
For the first time, we combined AI, social media, and anthropological research to explore how tourists shape the aesthetic legacy of cultural heritage sites. While Cuzco, Peru, was a focal point of this study, we didn’t just measure footfall and activity along the Inca Trail — we also evaluated how tourists see, shape, and experience the sites they visit. Using computer vision and statistics, we were able to capture key on-the-ground details about how popular a site was, how much time was spent there, and how people transitioned between places. We hope that in the future these findings can help inform tourism management, experiences, and cultural preservation.
We also framed human adventure through the lens of AI-powered 3D photos with a walk-through of how these photos work. 3D photo technology takes the subject in the foreground and measures it against whatever is in the background. AI, combined with Facebook’s custom software, produces photos that capture a person’s experience with seamless movement and depth. Our design manager shared his tips and tricks for how to make 3D images pop on a smartphone, computer screen, or VR headset.
This year, we continued working with doctors and medical imaging experts to accelerate MRI scans using AI. MRI scans are often the best tool for diagnosing problems with organs, muscles, and other soft tissue, but they can take a lot of time, which makes patients uncomfortable and limits the number of patients who can be scanned in a given day. We’ve shown for the first time that fastMRI images, made with AI from roughly one-fourth the raw data, are interchangeable with regular MRIs. This is an important step toward clinical acceptance and the use of AI-accelerated MRIs, and while we still have a lot of work to do, in the future AI-accelerated scans could benefit millions of people around the world.
Our vision for the future of work is powered by VR and Oculus for Business. As we’re learning from this year’s work experiences, collaboration requires real-time connections, shared vision, and context, alongside a powerful sense of community. We’re developing a computing platform powered by augmented reality and virtual reality to deliver the tools necessary to enrich day-to-day work experiences. We achieved several milestones this year using AR, VR, and AI to reshape how we engage, connect, and experience work — but there’s a lot of work left to be done.
VR continues to create immersive experiences that are more accessible for everyone. This year, Beat Saber co-developer Jaroslav Beck paired SUBPAC (a tactile audio system designed to deliver a physical dimension to sound) with Beat Saber (a VR rhythm game) in order to make Beat Saber gameplay experiences enriching for people with hearing loss. He realized pairing the two would add a new physical dimension to Beat Saber’s musical component. This not only made the game more accessible but also compelled Beck to compose music solely using SUBPAC’s technology, in order to let people feel music in addition to hearing it.
Lies Beneath, a survival horror game, debuted on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform. Playing Lies Beneath is like entering a graphic novel, letting its players turn the page and participate in a narrative that feels ostensibly real. We walked through one player’s experience navigating a menagerie of monsters within a dark, hazardous, and ever-changing realm. Inside the game’s imaginative world of disappearing characters, batlike ghouls, red-eyed phantoms, and indiscernible pathways, virtual threats can elicit physical responses from players.
Mesmerized by the details of oceanic wreckage revealed to her after numerous deep dives, Laura James created a VR educational tool and game to help others recognize important ocean artifacts. For James, VR-powered exploration includes uncovering shipwreck artifacts that live in the ocean but also understanding the environmental challenges posed to oceanic ecosystems. She hopes giving people opportunities to dive deeper into the underwater realm through technology will help them connect to places that can’t be unseen.
Supported by 100 percent renewable energy, this data center turned it up a notch with a site that uses heat recovery to warm surrounding homes and other buildings, including a local hospital. A multidisciplinary team of engineers, architects, designers, facility operators, and energy professionals designed the three-building, 80,000-square-meter facility to capture and recover the low-temperature heat generated by thousands of servers, and to deliver the heat for free to the surrounding community.
While our data center helped with heat recovery in Denmark, new Disaster Maps provided the real-time information needed to help those affected by Australia’s unprecedented bushfires. They helped fill information gaps and helped relief workers pinpoint where people were, how they were evacuating, and what resources they needed access to most. When the Australia fires began, we shared these real-time maps with more than 100 Data for Good partners, to help inform and support their humanitarian responses.
As part of our broader efforts to connect the world, we started rolling out Discover (a new product that builds on our Free Basics initiative) in a number of countries, including Peru, Thailand, the Philippines, Iraq, and Myanmar. Discover is a mobile web and Android app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile operators. With Discover, we were able to explore new ways to help people stay connected, and we took into consideration broader challenges, such as affordability and unequal access. In the midst of the coronavirus public health crisis, we used it to increase access to accurate health information by highlighting COVID-19 resources on the Discover homepage.
As these stories show, 2020 was innovative in ways we expected — and in many ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Our engineers and communities were challenged to build and develop technology in ways that accounted for global events, diverse experiences, and major changes to how we live, work, and experience culture. We look forward to all that’s yet to come in 2021!