Facebook's (FB) plans for world domination have a much bigger hardware component to them than is commonly believed. A new acquisition underscores just how seriously the company takes this aspect of its R&D efforts.
Facebook has bought Nascent Objects, a startup that was working on a "modular" platform for developing new electronics hardware, for an undisclosed sum. Nascent's team will be joining Building 8, a recently-launched Facebook hardware lab headed by Regina Dugan, formerly the head at Google's advanced R&D unit and before that the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
In a short letter announcing its acquisition, Nascent says its technology relies on a combo of "hardware design, circuitry, 3-D printing and modular electronics," and allows hardware developers "to go from concept to product in just weeks." A short video posted by Dugan gives an idea of the design workflow enabled by Nascent's solutions.
Facebook already prides itself on an engineering culture that moves quickly to turn ideas into hardware and code. The company also recently unveiled Area 404, a 22,000-square foot lab near the company's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters that lets engineers from different hardware teams collaborate in a common workspace. Given Area 404 has been "outfitted with state-of-the-art machine tools and test equipment," it's a natural fit for Nascent's technology.
One obvious potential use of the technology is to rapidly prototype new Oculus virtual reality headsets. Another would be to develop new version of Facebook's solar-powered Aquila drone, which aims to provide web connectivity to under-served regions.
But there are also some behind-the-scenes Facebook hardware efforts for which Nascent could be helpful. The most important of these is the Open Compute Project (OCP), a Facebook-led effort to create modular, low-power data center hardware designs.
Servers, storage and switches based on OCP designs are widely used within Facebook's data centers, and have yielded huge cost savings relative to buying hardware developed by third parties. Moreover, by open-sourcing OCP designs and enlisting many tech companies and enterprises as partners, the initiative stands to be a thorn in the side of IT giants such as IBM (IBM) , HP Enterprise (HPE) and Cisco Systems (CSCO) .
The telecom hardware being developed by Facebook's Connectivity Lab could also make use of Nascent. Its efforts have included Terragraph and Project Aries, two solutions for creating inexpensive, high-speed wireless broadband networks. As might Facebook's efforts to provide open-source designs for VR camera rigs.
Given the pace at which it has been unveiling new hardware initiatives, there are likely other, unannounced hardware projects for which Facebook could also leverage Nascent. The company's R&D spending appears set to top $6 billion this year, and while the lion's share of this spending doubtlessly involves software R&D, chances are it'll also drive a number of new hardware announcements in the coming months and years.