Facebook could be next to try out modular devices, a patent suggests

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Why it matters to you

If Facebook’s modular device patent comes to life, updating a device to the latest tech might not be so expensive.

Tired of replacing your gadgets every few years? Facebook patented a potential solution. In a patent approved on Thursday, Facebook describes a modular “electromagnetic device” that could extend the life cycle of the traditionally closed system gadgets. While it is unclear exactly what the device is or if the company is continuing to develop the idea, the Facebook modular smartphone (or multi-function device) is designed to help eliminate the waste and expense of updating electronics.

The patent doesn’t describe the device as a smartphone exactly, though the list of modules includes hardware to give the device the functionality of a phone, along with a speaker, microphone, touch display and GPS. Essentially, the device’s function depends on exactly what modules are used. Combining an internet module and a speaker module would turn the system into a radio for streaming music online, for example. The patent also suggests a few Alexa-like features and the group behind the development, Facebook’s Building 8, is believed to have a focus on camera and machine learning, according to Business Insider.

The patent is actually a result of the social media platform acquiring Nascent Objects in 2016, a startup that created modular gadgets — or at least the prototypes for one — using 3D printing. The patent names four Facebook employees that worked for Nascent Objects prior to the acquisition, now working inside Facebook’s Building 8 hardware development team.

While it is unclear if calling the device a “smartphone” is entirely accurate, the patent is not the first attempt at modular devices. Project Ara was a modular smartphone made by Google, but the development was eventually halted. Motorola’s Moto Z is modular, but unlike Ara and Facebook’s patent, the Moto Z looks like a typical smartphone, just with add-ons that go on the back. Cinema camera company Red also recently patented a modular smartphone system.

The main idea behind Facebook’s patent is to eliminate the waste and expense of replacing the device entirely, with the ability to replace individual components. “Typically, the hardware components included in the consumer electronics that are considered ‘outdated’ are still usable,” the patent says. “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.”

Like all patents, the existence of the documentation does not mean that the tech will actually come to life, or even that Facebook is still continuing to develop the idea.

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