It’s a Smartphone! It’s a Speaker! It’s…3D Printed! Facebook Files Patent Application for Intriguing Modular Device

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[Image: Flickr Creative Commons via Karen]

Anywhere you go, you’re likely to see people staring at their phones, and there’s a good chance that what they’re staring at is Facebook. It’s an all-too-easy habit to slip into, and it’s a hard habit to break – I’ve been trying to cut back on my own online habits, but I find myself automatically reaching for my phone and pulling up Facebook whenever I’m in a waiting room, at home putting off cleaning, or in any other idle time. Facebook obviously appreciates our addictions, and the ubiquity of smartphones has certainly fed the popularity of Facebook, so it isn’t surprising to learn that Facebook has filed a patent for its own smartphone.

Interestingly, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said in the past that the company had no plans to develop its own smartphone.

“If we did build a phone, we’d only reach one or two per cent of our users,” he said. “That doesn’t do anything awesome for us.”

That was a few years ago, however, and he appears to have changed his mind. Recently, Facebook filed a patent, which was published yesterday, for a “modular electromechanical device” that could function as a phone, speaker, microphone, GPS and other tools, which users could customize by snapping different components onto it like Legos. The patent application illustrates a main chassis, along with an assortment of modules, that would all be 3D printed. Users could update certain parts of their phone by swapping out components, and the device would download new software depending on what modules were in use.

The idea, according to the patent application, is to make it less wasteful to keep your smartphone up to date by only replacing certain parts at a time, rather than buying an entirely new phone every few years.

“Typically, the hardware components included in the consumer electronics that are considered ‘outdated’ are still useable,” the patent application states. “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.”

The patent application was filed by Building 8, Facebook’s consumer hardware lab that is developing all sorts of weird sci-fi ideas like brain scanners that would allow you to type with your mind. The inventors named on the application are Baback Elmieh, Alexandre Jais, Rex Wenters Crossen, and Andrew Alexander Robberts, all of whom formerly worked for Nascent Objects, a startup bought by Facebook last year. Nascent Objects specialized in 3D printed modular electronics, and a Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the technology for the modular phone was acquired from the startup.

Building 8 also employs Bernard Richardson, who previously worked on Amazon’s Alexa speaker, as head of new product introduction. Other Building 8 employees include several former Google employees who worked on the team developing Project Ara, a similar modular smartphone that Google was working on before the project was shut down last year. It seems as though Facebook’s modular device, if it comes to fruition, may be a sort of Frankenstein contraption made from a mishmash of ideas, both successful and not-so-successful.

Whether this device will actually be produced remains to be seen – many, many patent applications are filed every year, including many involving 3D printing technologies, and few of them actually develop into products. The fact that this particular patent application has been filed, however, along with the fact that Project Ara existed, even if it didn’t ultimately pan out, means that people are beginning to think about electronic devices like phones in a different way. We could be looking at a new era of much less electronic waste and the elimination of the need to get new phones so frequently. Also, as the devices may be 3D printed, there’s a good chance that they may be less expensive as well. Discuss in the Facebook forum at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: Business Insider / The Telegraph]

 

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