Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest of the high-flying leadership team at Facebook may get a lot of press for their strategic vision and ability to execute ideas, but ask the Facebook boss himself and he'll tell you that innovation at the company is much more grassroots than many people imagine.
"You'd be surprised by how much of the product road map over time is set, not by us talking about what we think we should do and deciding, but by engineers coming up with ideas," he told viewers of a recent Facebook Live stream on his personal page (hat tip to Business Insider for the pointer).
How exactly do these ideas get surfaced? Via periodic hackathons in which the company's engineers take a day to create bare-bones prototypes of nifty new ideas. These quick-and-dirty demos are the origin of many of the company's best-loved products, including Chat, the developer platform on which Facebook games are built, and Live.
So what are the latest innovations to come out of this company ritual? In the Live session, five teams shared the most promising ideas from the most recent hackathon as voted on by fellow employees with Zuckerberg and a panel of execs. These features may be coming soon to your favorite Facebook product.
1. A virtual ice sword
Jokes abound about this one ("Why don't I have an ice sword?" Zuckerberg says and laughs. "That's a question I ask myself every day!"), but the technology is actually seriously cool: It's a modification of the hand controllers for the Oculus VR headset that allows the user to physically feel hot and cold.
That's good for gaming (where you might want to wield an ice sword), but over time this sort of innovation could contribute to making VR reality more lifelike for any application.
2. Emergency location-tracking through Messenger
Say you've lost your best friend in the crowd at a festival and she isn't answering her phone. You're worried. What can you do? This is the conundrum the second team faced, and they came up with a clever tech solution--a feature in Messenger that allows you to give permission to those closest to you to view your location in case of emergencies. (Parents, no doubt, rejoice at the idea. Teenagers recoil.)
3. GIFs in comments
This one is pretty self-explanatory. "I think this will be widely used," comments Zuckerberg, so expect to see this innovation in the real world fairly soon. (And, in case you're wondering, even Facebook execs apparently can't agree on whether to pronounce the term "gifs" or "jifs.")
4. Offline messaging
This lets people create their own local network using their phones' Wi-Fi signals to communicate with friends nearby when the internet isn't up to the task (say, in emerging markets, a crowd situation, or on a subway). That way you can chat over Messenger even when you're offline.
In the future, messages might even be able to be relayed through friends' phones to reach even more distant connections, though privacy and security concerns need to be addressed first.
5. Automatically generated shared photo or video albums
Imagine you attend a wedding, but your smartphone is running low on battery so you can't snap away like you want to (or you get too caught up dancing to take photos). The obvious solution is to beg friends for pics on Facebook the next day.
This hack understands your desire and does you one better--automatically gathering the separate images or videos your friends share into a communal album. You could use the same principle to create a video collage of birthday wishes for a friend, for example.
Which of these coming innovations is the coolest in your book?