The all-star roster of tech veterans that Facebook began assembling one year ago is quietly making progress, steadily expanding the size of its ranks and the hardware prototypes under development.
The group, known as Building 8, currently has four simultaneous projects underway, spanning everything from cameras and augmented reality to science fiction-like brain scanning technology, Business Insider has learned.
And Facebook is already thinking about the coming-out party for its impending family of gadgets, laying the groundwork to drum up interest and sell the products when the time is right. Building 8 has yet to unveil any of its products, but people familiar with the matter said the hardware group is expected to play a key role in Facebook’s developer conference next month, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave his 10-year vision for the company last year.
To be part of this next wave, they’ve got to get real and hurry
The move to hardware is an ambitious and risky adventure for Facebook, which reigns as an internet superpower thanks to its nearly 2 billion users. With virtually no experience in the world of hardware, Facebook is taking on deep-pocketed competitors like Apple, Google and upstarts such as Snap, in a cut-throat business defined by thin profit margins and complex logistics.
And Facebook doesn't appear to be treating Building 8 like a hobby.
An analysis of Building 8’s recent hires and job listings by Business Insider, as well as conversations with people close to the company, shows an ambitious effort to create and sell millions of consumer hardware units, from a supply chain outpost in Hong Kong to a planned retail push and customer call center operation.
Facebook declined to comment for this story.
Cardiologists and prosthetics
One of the current Building 8 projects involves cameras and augmented reality, according to people familiar with the matter, and recent hires point to the development of a drone.
Another project involves brain-scanning technology and is lead by a former John Hopkins neuroscientist who helped develop a mind-controlled prosthetic arm. Yet another project could have medical applications, as it’s led by an interventional cardiologist from Stanford with expertise in early-stage medical device development. The group is also planning to jumpstart a fifth unspecified project, and is currently looking for the right person to lead it.
Overseeing everything is Regina Dugan, the former DARPA executive who Facebook CEO Zuckerberg poached from Google’s advanced projects division last April.
Building 8 is structured similarly to Google's Advanced Technology and Projects Group, or ATAP, and is also similar to X, the “moonshot” lab where Google's self-driving cars were born.
At Building 8, technical project leads are treated like mini-CEOs and given two-year deadlines to prove a concept that will either be shipped and sold or spun out into a different part of Facebook, which also owns Oculus VR, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
"He's going to help us make things fly"
The first such deadline is about a year away, coming up in the summer of 2018. Frank Dellaert, a robotics and computer vision expert, is leading that project. His involvement could suggest that Facebook is looking at making a consumer drone, something which Snapchat maker Snap Inc. has also looked into.
Before he joined Facebook last summer, Dellaert was the chief scientist at Skydio, a small startup that is working on an unreleased drone that can autonomously track a person while navigating through physical space. Dellaert also served as a professor at Georgia Tech and has shown specific interest in quadcopters, according to a person familiar with his work.
Additionally, Skydio’s former head of hardware, Stephen McClure, joined Facebook to be Building 8’s head of hardware in January, according to his LinkedIn profile. A handful of former GoPro employees have also joined Building 8 in recent months, including a founding member of the drone maker’s industrial design team.
In a separate Facebook post announcing his hire, Building 8 chief Regina Dugan hinted at Dellaert’s aerial ambitions. “He’s going to help us make things fly… when he’s not guarding the door,” she wrote.
Workers from other parts of Facebook have also been pulled in to staff Building 8. One engineer who joined last year named Alex Granieri previously worked on Aquila, Facebook’s high-altitude drone designed to beam internet connectivity to the developing world.
In an August 2016 post announcing his decision to join Building 8, Frank Dellaert signaled that his Building 8 project would be over by the summer of 2018, when he planned to return and teach at Georgia Tech.
“I can’t yet discuss the details of what I’ll be working on at Building 8, so stay tuned,” he wrote. “Suffice it to say, I accepted this position because of the potential impact. I'm eager to apply DARPA-style development to building hardware products at Facebook – audacious science and product development in one place? Let’s do it.”
“Disruptive shopping experiences”
While Building 8 is only less than a year old, the group is already ramping up plans to release its products into the wild, with multiple open “go-to-market,” retail, supply chain, and customer experience job positions listed on its website.
An open retail manager position says the job will “have the responsibility of creating disruptive ground up shopping experiences of Facebook consumer hardware,” and another open partnerships lead position says the person will “build an engaging and successful 3 year partnership strategy for Building 8 retail.”
The listings also indicate that Facebook plans to leverage outside partnerships to sell its products. One responsibility for the partnerships lead position is to “identify unique and inspiring collaborations that will drive innovation, impact social good, and inspire consumer loyalty and trust.”
Shipping and selling consumer hardware to millions of people represents a new challenge for Facebook, which to date has only tried smaller-scale retail pushes for its expensive Oculus VR headset.
Facebook’s early efforts with Building 8 are an indication that the company wants to be a serious player in augmented reality, which is considered to be the next frontier of technology, according to Loup Ventures partner Gene Munster.
“They realize to be part of this next wave, they’ve got to get real and hurry,” said Munster, who was previously known for his coverage of Apple as a Piper Jaffray analyst.
Munster, whose firm closely follows augmented and virtual reality companies, foresees Facebook wanting to ship at least 20 million units per year to be considered a successful consumer hardware company. Even then, he predicts that competition from the likes of larger companies like Apple and smaller incumbents like Snap Inc. will be strong.
“It’s a sign that they want to be more impactful and have a seat at the table,” he said of Facebook’s hardware efforts with Building 8. “I think it’s the right thing to do, but I’m hesitant to say it will be a success.”
Still, Building 8 is continuing to make hires from well-known hardware companies. The majority of Building 8’s senior leadership previously worked with Dugan at Google’s advanced technologies division, including the leadership team responsible for the shuttered Project Ara modular smartphone.
Interestingly, Dugan has made a couple of Facebook posts in recent weeks that hint at what she’s focusing on within Building 8.
In a post from February, she cited a statistic that 93% of “face-to-face” time between parents and their children is done by the time kids graduate high school.
“Most people experience this fact like a kick in the gut,” she wrote. “Because it is a profound reminder of the power of connections. And that we can do more to increase our sense of presence beyond the remaining 7%. I’m optimistic that technology can help... it will require new advances. Including hardware advances. That are social first.”
In a March post, Dugan wrote, “Smartphones have the power to connect us to people far away from us. Too often, at the expense of the people sitting right next to us. We shouldn’t have to choose.”
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