Facebook CEO and all-around wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg can do a lot of things.
But Zuck can’t use the steel-cutting, 60,000 PSI waterjets in Area 404 — Facebook’s brand new, 22,000 square foot hardware laboratory — because he’s not one of the ten or so Facebook employees authorised to even get in the room with them, for safety reasons.
The big idea behind Area 404 is to provide one big space for all of the social network’s various teams, including the still-very-mysterious denizens of Building 8, to apply the “Move Fast and Break Things” philosophy to making real physical objects, not just software.
Rather than rely on outside contractors and far-off factories to build their stuff, with Area 404, Facebook now has the facilities, including those serious-business waterjets, to prototype and build that hardware in-house. Better yet, it’s tucked into a concrete-reinforced bunker nestled right in Facebook’s main Silicon Valley campus.
That’s important, as Facebook moves beyond its ongoing efforts to build better servers for itself and into making 3D virtual reality cameras, flying internet-laser drones, and the experimental Terragraph high-speed wireless internet system.
It also means that Area 404 is going to be the place where the first versions of Facebook’s coolest, craziest, and most world-changing inventions will be made. Once fully operational, the stuff that goes on in Area 404 will be above top secret.
Luckily for us, Facebook let us tour Area 404 ahead of its official grand opening. Here’s a look at the high-tech lab Facebook is using to design its engines of world domination.
Facebook's main business may be social networking space, but it's long since been designing custom hardware in-house. Since the early 2010's, Facebook has been designing its own custom servers just to keep up with demand...
More recently, Facebook has been working on projects like the Aquila drone, designed to shoot lasers that bring internet access to rural areas...
...and the Facebook Surround 360 camera, designed to shoot super-high-resolution video for virtual reality.
But with only 8,000 square feet of hardware space dispersed over the Facebook campus available to them, those teams simply couldn't find the space. And so, the new 22,000 square-foot facility, available to any Facebook team, was dubbed Area 404, in honour of the infamous HTTP 404 error for 'website not found.'
Much of Area 404 is office space, where designers and modelers use computer aided design, or CAD, tools to make 3D models of the parts and tools that they want to build. There's also a big electronics engineering area.
Area 404 is also home to this RF isolation chamber, which blocks out all radio signals. That's handy if you're trying to fine-tune cellular modems or any kind of wireless signal without outside interference.
Area 404 is home to all kinds of nifty lab equipment. This CT scanner basically takes a series of X-Rays, so you can see inside anything. Note the sticker about it being a device for doing alien autopsies. It's joking. I think.
The same room hosts Facebook's electron microscope, which bombards samples with electrons to get visibility at a molecular level.
'Not only is this space good for new things,' explains Facebook Engineering and Infrastructure head Jay Parikh, 'as we continue to experiment and try things out we need to be ready for our failures too.' Which is to say if, for example, a Facebook-designed experimental prototype motherboard totally burns out, they can use the CT scanner and microscope to figure out what happened, without having to wait for an outside lab to get back to them with an analysis.
But the office space and the lab equipment is only part of the story. Much of Area 404 is so heavy-duty, you need to wear protective eyewear while you're present.
In this shop, Facebook engineers who pass a certification program are allowed to work on their own prototypes, in their own time. For hardware engineers, it gives them the freedom to make the exact thing they need, on their own schedule.
The yellow tape is to indicate the safe distance to stand back if you're not using a machine.