Facebook is restructuring its efforts to build futuristic glasses as the company's augmented-reality efforts inch closer toward the launch of a commercial product.
The Silicon Valley tech giant has moved hundreds of employees from its research-focused unit Facebook Reality Labs to a new standalone product team focused on AR, Business Insider has learned.
The employees had already been working on AR tech at the Reality Labs group prior to the move, and the shift indicates Facebook continues to be focused on developing augmented-reality hardware and that its approach is shifting from something experimental and research-driven to a focus on delivering actual commercial products.
It's not clear exactly how many employees were transferred. One source estimated there were 650 employees within the Reality Labs group and that 60% of them were being transferred (just under 400), but the Facebook representative Tera Randall disputed this figure, instead saying: "A few hundred people moved out from FRL to work on AR product. We're growing both teams and expect FRL to increase by 20% this year."
The legendary programmer and games industry veteran Michael Abrash is in charge of FRL, and he will jointly lead the new AR product team with Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, Facebook's vice president of augmented reality and virtual reality. The changes were introduced around November, Randall said, and have not previously been reported.
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"We made a shift to a more functional organization last year and brought the AR product work into our product org and out of research, now that we are closer to shipping," Randall said. (Some AR research will continue to be conducted through FRL.)
On Wednesday, the Facebook executive Rafa Camargo also announced he was changing roles, becoming the new vice president of AR/VR hardware at Facebook under Bosworth. He now works alongside Ficus Kirkpatrick, who manages Facebook's AR and VR software efforts.
The company declined a request for comment about specifically how many employees had been or continue to be shifted to this new team, but Facebook spokesperson Tera Randall told Business Insider that it was in the ballpark of “a few hundred people” and that the company planned to expand both teams this year.
The AR team change follows a broader shake-up in Facebook's approach to experimental projects. In late 2018, as Business Insider previously reported, Facebook quietly scrapped the Building 8 umbrella organization that housed the various hardware and AR research projects.
Some of Building 8 was moved to Facebook Reality Labs — a rebranded version of Oculus Research, an older VR/AR-focused research lab at the company. Facebook now uses FRL to house some of its most far-out research — like brain-computer interfaces and "soft" robotics. These efforts are continuing as normal post-reorganization. Meanwhile, the newly created Portal organization took responsibility for the eponymous Portal smart video chat device Facebook had just launched.
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Multiple AR hardware products in development
It's not clear whether the AR hardware product closest to commercialization is the futuristic glasses Facebook has previously discussed or another, undisclosed product.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg teased the company's vision for augmented-reality glasses at Facebook's annual developer conference in 2017. A digital mock-up of how the glasses might look, displayed to the crowd in an onstage presentation, resembled ordinary-looking eyeglasses with the capability to superimpose digital objects in the field of view. Facebook has said relatively little about the project since then, though Kirkpatrick confirmed to TechCrunch in October that the glasses were still being developed .
According to a source Business Insider spoke with, development of the AR glasses has progressed and there is now a physical prototype. The source, who had tried on a prototype of the glasses, said they resembled traditional glasses much more closely than the bulky AR headsets offered by Microsoft (the HoloLens) or Magic Leap.
"They look like really high-end glasses," the person said, adding "it's light enough to not feel heavy on your face, and it wasn't light enough to feel like you could just sit down and break them."
The source described being told that the glasses were originally scheduled for a 2020 launch but that it had been pushed back to around 2022. Randall disputed this, however, saying in a statement: "We have an exciting AR road map that includes multiple products, so your intel on release dates is wrong."
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She confirmed that meant Facebook was working on multiple hardware AR products but indicated they might not all launch. She declined to provide specifics.
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