(TNS) — Facebook is developing virtual reality systems in Pittsburgh, Pa., that it hopes will someday permit people located in separate parts of the world to communicate virtually as if they are sitting together in the same room.
Let’s say people in China, the United Sates, Europe, South America and Australia want to meet. They could jump on planes and fly around the globe to meet in person. They could hop on a conference call or video chat.
Or, with Facebook’s technology, they could don light-weight, wireless headsets and communicate digitally as avatars. All of their features, expressions and body language would be seen by the viewer in 3D the same as if they were together in the same space, said Yaser Sheikh, director of research at Facebook Reality Labs Pittsburgh.
“This ability to share that space together, that’s kind of a key thing that’s missing in any telecommunication system right now, and that’s really the promise that we have here,” Sheikh said. “You must have had friends and family that leave, and you and I know that once someone leaves a place that relationship, it stagnates, and over time it just sort of decays, right? I think the real promise of this is that it will give people the power to choose whom they have relationships with no matter where they are in the world.”
The technology is the only project Facebook is working on at its newest office in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The company Thursday will host a ceremonial opening of the office at Smallman and 15th streets.
The four-story building was finished last year but had to be retrofitted for Facebook’s labs and rooms where the avatars are made, said Chuck Hoover, general manager of Facebook Reality Labs Pittsburgh. The ground-floor avatar rooms resemble a black box theater. They will house a large sphere filled with hundreds of small cameras to record a person’s voice and movements.
Facebook brought in excavators and trucks and used jackhammers to remove the building’s original concrete floors. The walls are triple thick. The new floors consist of a 3-foot-thick layer of concrete, a layer of heavy springs laid out in a grid and a second, 6-inch-thick layer of concrete on top of the springs.
“We need to keep external sound and vibration down to a minimum,” Hoover said. “We really need everything in here to be really hyper accurate. We need every pixel to be perfectly locked in space.”
Employees work in open-space floor plans on upper floors. There’s only one office for IT personnel.
“Yaser doesn’t have an office. I don’t have an office,” Hoover said. “I think the ony person at Facebook who has an office is (company founder Mark Zuckerberg), because they made him. He didn’t want it.”
Hoover said Zuckerberg has never been to Pittsburgh, but would likely visit in the future to have his avatar made.
“I’ve been talking to him about when that may happen,” Hoover said. “I think the main point will be is when we can make his avatar.”
Facebook came to Pittsburgh in 2015 and has offices in Oakland and on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus. The Strip District and Oakland facilities focus exclusively on virtual reality research. CMU provides space for an artificial intelligence laboratory.
The company employees more than 100 people in Pittsburgh, and Sheikh said the company intends to expand as research progresses.
Sheikh said the company’s VR research is aimed at developing communications systems that can eliminate the need for travel and possibly even offices. Employees can work remotely and communicate with colleagues through VR, he said. Schools can use it to teach students in remote locations. Doctors can utilize the technology for telemedicine.
Sheikh said discussions are ongoing about what Facebook might actually do with the technology if it proves successful, and he could not provide a timeline for when it might become commercially available.
“At the beginning of this project, I said there are 10 miracles that we would need before this thing becomes real,” he said. “I think we’re about five miracles away. Any one of them could take very long or take vary short, but the thing that’s exciting, and one of the reasons that we’ve seen investment in this lab, is we have actually solved some of those miracles.”
Hoover said the goal is to make the system indistinguishable from real life. The company uses volunteers from the Pittsburgh region and employees as models for the avatars.
Employees, including research scientists, hardware and software engineers, hardware technicians, technical program managers and technical and 3D character artists, work in cubicles on upper floors. The space is open and includes areas where employees can get away from their desks to talk and share ideas.
A cafe provides free lunch and breakfast. A room featuring a pingpong table and other games lets employees relax from their focused, stressful jobs. The building has an IT vending machine stocked with free equipment such as batteries and computer cables from an IT vending machine.
Artwork created by local artists and posters made by employees adorn walls.
Sheikh said Pittsburgh provided a perfect setting for the work.
“There’s a can-do attitude among everyone here,” he said, adding he thinks it comes from the city’s steel industry heritage. “Anyone you talk to on the street, there’s this kind of, ‘Let’s just get it done.’ I think that’s part of the magic of the city.”
©2020 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.