Facebook is working on a type of device so tough to build, even Google gave up on it

Project Ara Google's Project Ara phone could have its individual parts swapped by the user. The phone never shipped. Project Ara

Facebook appears to be taking a page out of Google's playbook for its forthcoming push into consumer hardware.

A patent application published by the company on Thursday details a "modular electromechanical device" that can incorporate a speaker, microphone, touch display, GPS, and even function as a phone.

Modular consumer hardware allows users to swap different components onto a device, much in the way lego pieces can be snapped together or separated. 

The notion of a plug-and-play smartphone has long entranced and challenged tech companies. Google spent several years developing its ambitious Project Ara modular phone, only to abruptly shutter it last year.

Coincidentally, many key members of Google's Project Ara team now work at Facebook's Building 8 group, the team responsible for the new patent application. Building 8's leader, Regina Dugan, previously led the advanced technology group within Google responsible for Project Ara.

Building 8 is Facebook's consumer hardware lab that's also working on futuristic projects like the ability to type with your mind and understand language through your skin. The four employees named on the patent all previously worked for Nascent Objects, a startup Facebook bought last year that used 3D printing to quickly prototype modular gadgets.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the technology was acquired through Nascent Objects but declined to comment further.

Millions of connected devices

It's unclear what exact device the modular system will be used for, although people familiar with the matter have told Business Insider that Building 8 is heavily focused on developing cutting-edge camera and machine learning technology.

The modular device could function as a phone or Amazon Alexa-like music speaker, according to the patent, which also notes that "millions of devices" connected to a server could be loaded with different software based on components that are swapped out. Building 8's head of new product introduction, Bernard Richardson, previously worked in a similar role at Amazon on the Alexa speaker, according to his LinkedIn.

Here's a sketch of the mysterious product concept included in Facebook's patent application:

Screen Shot 2017 07 20 at 4.06.47 PM A rendering of a modular device with a speaker and processor in a patent by Facebook published Thursday. USPO

Facebook tried to make a phone with HTC in 2013, but the project was a complete flop. Building 8's roster of talent includes former employees from Apple, Google, and Motorola with experience developing and shipping millions of phones and tablets. The division is also assembling a retail and e-commerce team to sell the gadgets that Building 8 dreams up.

Whatever Facebook ends up shipping under its Building 8 umbrella, the company thinks that a modular system is more beneficial for consumers than the way gadgets like the iPhone are manufactured and sold today.

"Typically, the hardware components included in the consumer electronics that are considered 'outdated' are still useable," Thursday's patent, which was originally filed in January 2016, reads. "However, the hardware components can no longer be re-used since consumer electronics are designed as closed systems. From a consumer prospective, the life cycle of conventional consumer electronics is expensive and wasteful."

Do you know more about what's going on in Building 8? Contact the author securely and discreetly via email (aheath@businessinsider), Twitter direct message, or "alexeheath" on Telegram.

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