Facebook moves AR glasses team out of Reality Labs into new group

Facebook is restructuring its efforts to build futuristic glasses as the company’s augmented reality efforts inch closer towards launching a commercial product.

The Silicon Valley tech giant has moved hundreds of employees from its research-focused unit Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) to a new standalone product team focused on AR, Business Insider has learned.

The employees had already been working on AR tech at FRL 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 Facebook spokesperson 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.”

Legendary programmer and games industry veteran Michael Abrash is in charge of FRL, and will jointly lead the new AR product team with Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s VP of AR and VR (Virtual Reality). The changes were introduced around November 2018, Randall said, and have not previously been reported.

“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,” the spokesperson said. (Some AR research will continue to be conducted through FRL.)

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Facebook exec Michael Abrash shows a render of how AR glasses might look at the company’s Oculus Connect 5 conference in 2018.

On Wednesday, Facebook exec Rafa Carmago also announced he was changing roles, becoming the new VP of AR/VR hardware at Facebook underneath Boz. He now works alongside Ficus Kirkpatrick, who manages Facebook’s AR and VR software efforts.

The AR team change follows a broader shakeup 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-re-organization. Meanwhile, the newly created Portal organization took responsibility for the eponymous Portal smart video chat device Facebook had just launched.

Multiple AR hardware products in development

It’s not clear if the AR hardware product closest to commercialization are 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 mockup of how the glasses might look, displayed to the crowd in an on-stage 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, although Kirkpatrick confirmed to TechCrunch in October that the glasses were still being developed.

According to a source that Business Insider spoke to, 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 it 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 … 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 said they had been told they were originally scheduled for a 2020 launch, but this had been pushed back to around 2022. However, Facebook’s Randall disputed this, saying in a statement: “We have an exciting AR roadmap that includes multiple products, so your intel on release dates is wrong.”

She confirmed that meant that Facebook is working on multiple different hardware AR products, but that they might not all launch. She declined to provide specifics.

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