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Inside “Area 404,” Facebook’s Super-Exclusive Hardware Laboratory

Totally different from Area 51. We hope.

Yesterday, Facebook opened the doors to their “Area 404” hardware laboratory to a select few, and photos and articles about the experience have begun to filter out onto the internet, describing the experience. The lab is called “Area 404” as a reference to the “Not Found” 404 error, because the lab was intended to supply something that was ordinarily “not found” at Facebook’s headquarters: resources for building hardware prototypes.

Facebook has been getting into the hardware game more and more in the past couple of years, what with their forays into developing internet-providing drones and their purchase of the Oculus Rift. According to TechCrunch, the Area 404 lab has 50 work benches to accommodate all the different projects getting made there, including work on those Oculus headsets, as well as servers and data centers, plus some of the parts for the Aquila internet drone that recently had its first successful test flight. Those work benches also include space for members of the mysterious team known as Building 8, which is headed up by Regina Dugan, former Google exec and DARPA director.

According to The Verge‘s report on the tour, the new facility is part of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 10-year vision for the company, which is to make sure that Facebook gets “more deeply invested in forward-thinking markets like VR, internet connectivity, and artificial intelligence.” The first two items on that list–VR and internet connectivity–relate directly to hardware projects that Facebook has been working on in-house, which are the Oculus Rift and the internet accessibility drones. Facebook could be outsourcing the creation of those hardware prototypes to other vendors, but since they can afford to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing hub in-house, why not just do that?

Facebook’s move towards artificial intelligence makes sense, given the company’s recent attempts to introduce savvier marketing bots to their Messenger platform. But how do hardware products, like the internet accessibility drones, fit into the larger goals of the company? In a recent interview with The Verge, Zuckerberg admitted that he could see why the decision might seem odd: “It’s not something you necessarily expect Facebook to do — because we’re not an aerospace company. But I guess we’re becoming one.”

I’ve already expressed my doubts about the scalability of Facebook’s plans to provide internet accessibility with these drones, and of course the Oculus Rift has had plenty of its own concerns, mostly privacy-related. But these projects are going to continue unabated, it seems. It makes sense that Facebook would want to have an in-house hardware development team, rather than outsource the labor elsewhere, so really Area 404 just feels like another logical step on the way towards becoming an indomitable tech giant … which Facebook already is, anyway. Look out, Google?

(via TechCrunch, image via C_osett/Flickr)

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