Business Insider’s Rob Price is reporting on the end of Building 8–a much-ballyhooed skunkworks within Facebook dedicated to wildly ambitious hardware research. Its Portal videophone is now a commercial project, and a recent reorg has shuffled its other projects elsewhere at Facebook. As Facebook VP for AR and VR Andrew Bosworth pointed out to me on Twitter, the shift is more about the end of the Building 8 branding than Facebook pulling back on bleeding-edge research. Still, it feels like a notable moment in a six-year-long saga that spans both Facebook and Google.
Announced in 2016, Building 8 was originally headed by Regina Dugan, the former director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s iconic Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is known for its, well, innovative approach to innovation: It believes in small teams that work intensively on big ideas over relatively short periods of time, and sees failure not as an embarrassment but a necessary aspect of invention.
Prior to Building 8, Dugan headed a similar skunkworks for Google, ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects), founded in 2012 and modeled on DARPA’s philosophies. (The group originated as part of Motorola, but Google kept it after selling Moto to Lenovo.) At ATAP, Dugan talked about way-out-there technologies such as an authentication system you could swallow. ATAP’s Tango 3D space mapping was subsumed by Google’s ARCore AR platform, and the Project Ara modular smartphone never reached consumers. But the lab’s Jacquard smart jacket project, a collaboration with Levi’s, remains extant. (It’s the primary subject of ATAP’s Twitter feed.)
At Facebook’s Building 8, Dugan waxed futuristic about stuff like technology to let you hear through your skin. Her group was also responsible for Portal, which recently shipped. By the time it reached the market, Dugan was gone, having announced her decision to leave Facebook in October 2017.
Officially, Facebook’s Portal group is the successor to Building 8. That is not out of whack with the practice at DARPA, which believes in nudging its fully realized creations out of the lab once they’re no longer experiments. And Business Insider’s Price reports that work continues on some of Building 8’s more visionary experiments, just within a different research arm called Facebook Reality Labs. But the fact that Dugan’s time at Google and Facebook didn’t seem to transform either company may be a sign that DARPA’s alluring philosophy is tough to turn into new research arms that are built to last.