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Inside Facebook's new hardware lab for VR, drones and data servers

The social network isn't just about our baby pictures and political rants. It wants to build virtual reality goggles and Wi-Fi-beaming, solar-powered planes. Now it has the 22,000-square-foot facility to do it.

Josh Miller/CNET
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Deep inside Building 17 of Facebook's corporate campus in Menlo Park, California, past a set of doors by a poster that says, "Measure twice, cut once," there's a machine that does a whole lot of measuring and cutting.

The hulking contraption, which almost touches the ceiling of the room, sports a jutting arm that zigs and zags at a metal globe sitting on a moving platform. It's called a 5-axis milling machine, and it's demoing how it can cut an object from several different directions.

A few feet away, there's a metal pool a little bigger than a hot tub, painted blue with the company's logo on the side, sitting under a set of big yellow hooks that hang from the ceiling. The pool itself is home to a water jet that can cut steel, stone and just about anything else.

The 22,000-square-foot facility is called Area 404, an inside joke because Facebook's teams wanted a central place where they could work on hardware, but that place was nowhere to be found. "Not found," or 404, the dreaded message you get when you look for something on the internet that isn't there. Facebook's products built here aren't meant to be shown to the public yet.

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Facebook's new hardware lab has a water jet for cutting metal.

Josh Miller/CNET

The company on Tuesday invited press to its facility, deep in the belly of its headquarters, in order to prove that it's not just a group of people writing code meant to inspire you to share more photos and show you a better ad in the process.

Facebook wants us to know it's making real-world objects too. It's building stuff like Wi-Fi-beaming drones, virtual reality goggles and futuristic types of cameras that can see in 360 degrees. And it's doing this with what it calls a state-of-the-art facility.

"Who would have thought you'd be doing this at Facebook?" said Spencer Burns, standing at a workbench and holding a propeller. Burns, who makes hardware models for the company by programming the machines, led the tour.

The facility, which Facebook started building nine months ago, is broken up into two sections: an electrical engineering lab and a prototyping workshop with more than 50 work benches.

There's a constant hum of machinery in the mostly white and gray room and a handful of workers milling about. The lab has so much dangerous equipment that Facebook turned off many of the machines and required press to wear safety goggles. Not even CEO Mark Zuckerberg can get in some areas without the proper certification, Burns said.

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Spencer Burns, who makes models at Facebook by programming computers, showed off the social network's new hardware facility.

Josh Miller/CNET

It may seem odd that a company famous for a News Feed made of bits and pixels has opened up such a massive operation dedicated to atoms.

But the lab is critical to Facebook's future because it wants to be more than just a hub for baby pictures and political rants (though it still wants to be that, too). Zuckerberg has laid out a sweeping 10-year plan for the company, which includes big bets in artificial intelligence, virtual reality and internet access. It's part of Zuckerberg's oft-repeated mantra of "making the world more open and connected." For Facebook, it's also about trying to keep ahead of the next wave of computing -- whatever form that takes when smartphones go the way of the fax machine.

That's where the hardware comes in, and thus Area 404.

The facility is where Facebook will build the tools to develop drone technology for aerial delivery of Wi-Fi to remote regions. In June, the company logged its first test flight of Aquila, a solar-powered drone with the wingspan greater than that of a Boeing 737. (That's the propeller Burns is holding.) Facebook wants to use these drones to beam internet access to the world's poorest, from what is basically a flying cell tower.

The lab is also where Facebook builds prototypes for the Oculus Rift, the flagship headset made by the VR company Facebook bought in 2014 for $2 billion. The Rift went on sale in March for $600 (roughly AU$790 or £450).

Facebook also uses the lab to build the casing for its Surround 360, a device the company designed but doesn't sell itself. (It would cost $30,000 to buy that materials necessary to build it.) The device comprises 17 cameras designed to help people make high-quality 360-degree videos.

Beyond that, the lab is home to Facebook's Building 8, a new initiative for developing experimental hardware. In May, Facebook poached Regina Dugan, the former head of DARPA, the US government's no-idea-too-crazy agency, who led a similar effort at Google called Advanced Technology and Projects, or ATAP. The Google division has developed some of Google's most intriguing consumer technology, including Ara, which aims to let people build smartphones interchangeable parts like Lego bricks, and Tango, a technology for 3D mapping.

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The lab has a 5-axis milling machine for building prototypes.

Josh Miller/CNET

Facebook declined to say what Dugan or Building 8 are doing, though the division is hiring.

The company knows experimenting in hardware means a lot of things will go wrong. So the lab also has a giant X-ray machine it uses for "failure analysis," where the company puts devices so it can see them inside-out and try to figure out what's not working. On the side of the machine there's a sign that says "Alien life form autopsy room. DANGER." It's quite fitting for a company whose mantra used to be "move fast and break things."

Facebook declined to say how much the lab cost to build. But the facility is "state of the art," according to Jay Parikh, Facebook's head of engineering and infrastructure. "It brings together a lot of different opportunities."

Burns explained that the different milling machines are important because the company needs to be able to build things that are both small and big. That includes the infrastructure equipment as well as Oculus parts, but he wouldn't go into detail about what else the company has in mind.

"We're really trying to plan for the future with this lab," said Burns.