Facebook is unifying its hardware efforts under a veteran exec and readying an ‘Aloha’ video chat device
Andrew Bosworth is taking over the company’s consumer hardware efforts including the Building 8 division, which is working on an unannounced video chat device codenamed Aloha
Facebook has tapped one of its most veteran execs to lead all of its consumer hardware efforts, including the mysterious Building 8 division responsible for its forthcoming video chat device.
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth will oversee Building 8 and Oculus, Facebook’s virtual reality arm, Business Insider has learned. The announcement was recently made inside Facebook by CTO Mike Schroepfer, and a company spokesperson confirmed the news to BI on Wednesday.
“We are excited about our long-term investments in virtual reality, augmented reality, and consumer hardware,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We believe these new technologies have the potential to bring the world closer together in entirely new ways, and we’ve built great teams with strong leadership in each of these areas. Bringing these teams closer together will help us move even faster as we continue to invest in our 10-year roadmap.”
Bosworth has served as Facebook’s VP of ads and business platform for years, and was instrumental in the company’s early efforts to create the News Feed and Messenger. He’s been at the company for over a decade and is a close confidant to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Another longtime Facebook ads engineering exec, Mark Rabkin, will assume Bosworth’s old responsibilities.
Bosworth’s appointment reflects the challenges Facebook has experienced in the consumer hardware business as it races to keep up with rivals like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Facebook has spend vast sums of money acquiring talent and technology, but the multi-pronged effort has lacked a centralised focus that the company now hopes to have by unifying its various hardware teams under Bosworth.
He will also serve as a seasoned business leader to steer Building 8 team, which has suffered a wave of key staff departures in recent months, including the loss of COO Richard Wooldridge, head of consumer experience Donald Hicks, and head of product management Olivier Bartholot, according to people familiar with the matter.
Facebook’s recently-appointed vice president of VR and former Xiaomi exec Hugo Barra will report to Bosworth along with Regina Dugan, the former DARPA exec who Zuckerberg poached from Google’s advanced projects division to form Building 8 last April.
While Building 8 has publicly teased its futuristic, far-off work on mind-reading technology and sensors that “feel” language through human skin, the team’s first piece of consumer hardware will be a video chat device similar to Amazon’s recently announced Echo Show.
The device, codenamed Aloha, will feature a large touchscreen along with a camera and speakers and be capable of recognising peoples’ faces when they step into view, three people with knowledge of the device said.
Prototypes of Aloha have been tested in employees’ homes in recent months, and the current plan is to release the device in May 2018. Facebook is looking at selling the device for US$499 but hasn’t landed on a final price point, according to one person familiar with the matter. The planned release date could also change.
One hurdle Building 8 has faced in its efforts to build its first device is consumer mistrust of Facebook protecting user privacy, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. The company conduced marketing studies for project Aloha and received overwhelming concern that Facebook would use the device to spy on users, according to one person with knowledge of the matter.
To assuage concerns about privacy, Facebook has considered creative ways to market Aloha, including pitching it as a device for letting the elderly easily communicate with their families. Building 8 employees have also considered creating new brand names beside Facebook to sell their gadgets under.
Work began on Aloha after Facebook executives saw the success of Amazon’s first Echo, and now the Echo Show is seen internally as Aloha’s main competitor, people familiar with the matter said.
The future of Facebook hardware
A video chat device for the home isn’t the only hardware cooking in Building 8.
Aside from project Aloha, Building 8 is also working on a smart speaker without a display more akin to the original Amazon Echo, a 360-degree camera, and exploring wearable devices like smart glasses and a sensor-laden necklace, people with knowledge of the products said. Some details about project Aloha were first reported by Digitimes and Bloomberg.
Facebook declined to comment on any details related to Aloha or other unannounced Building 8 projects.
With little experience in selling consumer hardware to date, Facebook is taking on deep-pocketed competitors like Apple and Google in a cutthroat business defined by thin profit margins and complex logistics. Sales of its flagship Oculus VR headset have lagged behind competitors, and the Oculus team’s work on delivering futuristic smart glasses capable of overlaying virtual objects onto the real world is likely still years away.
An entirely separate division from Oculus, Building 8 is structured similarly to Google’s advanced technology group, or ATAP, and is also similar to X, the “moonshot” lab where Google’s self-driving cars were born. ATAP, which Dugan led before joining Building 8, was recently folded into Google’s larger hardware division as well.
At Facebook’s annual developer conference earlier this year, Dugan said that Building 8’s goal was to “create and ship category-defining products that are social first” at a mass scale. The division, which Zuckerberg has said he plans to spend hundreds of millions dollars on, is planning to sell its gadgets in physical stores and online.
“When we were talking to Regina about joining us, one of the conversations we had is, ‘Look, this is not a random idea factory to go do whatever the team wants to work on,’” Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said in an interview with BI earlier this year. “We want to focus people on things that are directly associated with the mission.”