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Facebook Unveils New Pittsburgh Office, With Mission To 'Level Playing Field' By Using Avatars

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Courtesy of Facebook
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Facebook Reality Labs has built avatars consisting of users' faces, and hopes one day to include bodies, hair, and hands.

Pittsburgh is set to expand as a hub for Facebook’s development of virtual reality. The company formally opened its new Reality Labs office in the Strip District Thursday, with the capacity to house 250 workers.

Today, about 100 employees occupy the space, where they are working to develop avatars, or lifelike digital representations of people. Facebook hopes to use virtual reality so users can interact online in remote locations.

The technology promises to “level the playing field for more people, wherever they are,” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a video message to company employees and local officials gathered for an open house at the new office Thursday.

“Imagine putting on a headset at home and instantly joining a meeting at the office, or a class at one of the world’s leading universities,” Sandberg continued. “Imagine being able to attend a wedding or birthday party that you can’t afford to fly to.”

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Credit Courtesy of Facebook
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Facebook Reality Labs' custom-built capture studio has 180 cameras and 1,700 microphones to gather the large quantities of information needed to create an individual's avatar.

Yaser Sheikh, research director for Facebook Reality Labs, said avatars use 3D capture technology and artificial intelligence to facilitate more authentic human connection beyond the capabilities of video services such as Skype or Apple’s FaceTime.

“There’s something different about the way we interact when we can look at people’s faces, interact with them in person, share the space with them,” Sheikh said. “That’s the aspiration: to help people build communities and build much [deeper] and more meaningful relationships with people no matter where they live."

Sheik acknowledged the “threat of ‘deepfakes,’” or spoof versions of actual avatars, in a blog post he wrote with Facebook Reality Labs Pittsburgh General Manager Chuck Hoover. But in the post, published Thursday, Sheik and Hoover said the company is “thinking pragmatically about safeguards to keep avatar data safe.”

Called “Facebook District 15,” the new Pittsburgh office consists of more than 100,000 square feet of lab and office space as well as art installations created by local artists-in-residence.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto welcomed Facebook’s potential growth in Pittsburgh, and said the new office marked another step in the city’s comeback from the fall of the steel industry.

“It’s not simply about creating jobs,” the mayor said. “It’s about creating a future that is based on the 21st Century.”

Peduto said parcels along the Allegheny River, like the one Facebook occupies on 15th Street, remain ripe for change.

“These areas that are being redeveloped, for the most part were parking lots. Or they were abandoned warehouses that didn’t have anything in them for 30 or 40 years,” Peduto said.

“You’re going to see a lot of changes [throughout the city] because of the vibrancy and because of companies knowing [of] the ecosystem that we have here,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald added.

Fitzgerald said Pittsburgh’s workforce, affordability, and quality of life are major draws for businesses like Facebook.

Peduto noted that some of the region’s tech companies draw on a range of skills. For example, he said, autonomous vehicle makers Argo AI, Aurora, and Uber have hired mechanics from local car dealerships. And he said Carnegie Mellon University has partnered with sheet metal workers to build robots.

Peduto also praised tech firms for showing a willingness to engage with local youth and train them in coding. On Thursday, Facebook announced it will donate $20,000 for education programs at Pittsburgh’s Sarah Heinz House.