The Perplexing Mystery of Building 8


Area 51.

Building 8.

Without question, the smart speaker is the most important new product category in consumer electronics. Smart speakers are novel and cool. They are also the Trojan Horse that enables you to order stuff off the internet, take out a music subscription, and do any number of revenue-generating things, all the while data-mining your voice's every inflection.

Amazon has sold an estimated 15 million Echo devices, and controls 75% of the market but everyone, and I mean everyone is racing to catch up. Amazon has a raft of new Alexa models, Harman just released the Cortana Invoke, JBL has three new Google speakers, etc. Everyone wants a piece of this pie including, maybe, Facebook.

Facebook is a software-centric company serving some 2 billion people. Much like Google, apparently it now sees the advantages of developing its own hardware. And think about it — if your business is social media, it makes complete sense to have your own chatty speaker gateway into its social ecosystem.

So, there is rampant speculation that Facebook is readying its own smart speaker, possibly for release early in 2018. The secret project is apparently under development in Facebook's Building 8 in Menlo Park. Take a look at this "Help Wanted" page on Facebook's website. It's filled with mystery and intrigue, hinting at all sorts of wonderful "consumer hardware products that are social first," without ever mentioning specifics. Reportedly, Facebook has staffed Building 8 with experts raided from Apple, Google, Motorola, Amazon and other companies.

All we have are rumors. For example, the product might be a smart speaker with a 15-inch touchscreen; it might rely on that screen, rather than voice recognition, for its control — a video-chat speaker, if you will. That would compete with the Amazon Echo Show smart speaker that also offers a video touchscreen. Other rumored longer-term Facebook projects are the stuff of science fiction. For example, Building 8 might be working on a brain-reading device that lets you type using your thoughts, or sensors that can "feel" speech through human skin.

One thing we know — this is no small effort. The company has reportedly committed hundreds of millions of dollars to its hardware projects. And according to a Facebook spokesperson, the Building 8 team comprises "hundreds of people." Are they laboring in secret so that Facebook can enter the home smart-speaker market? Or is it something much more ambitious? I have no idea.

Ah — one more thing. Take another look at that 'Help Wanted" page. You'll see prominent pictures of Regina Dugan. She is a Silicon Valley heavy hitter who headed Google's Advanced Technology and Products group, and before that was the director of US Department of Defense's DARPA. She was hired to run Facebook's hardware projects in 2016, and ran Building 8. Last week, she announced that she would be leaving the company. Of course, that only deepens the mystery.