Facebook has been in Pittsburgh for five years but its recent expansion into the Strip District shows that it plans to grow.

Company officials hosted an open house on Thursday to show off their new offices and the work that is being done at Facebook Reality Labs.

Here, they work on Codec Avatars, some of the most advanced avatars ever created.

Imagine putting on a headset or pair of glasses — and suddenly, you can be thousands of miles away attending a meeting, or a class, or a party.

Codec Avatars use 3D capture technology and artificial intelligence to help people create lifelike virtual avatars of themselves. The goal is to eventually make it as natural and effortless to interact with someone in virtual reality as if they were sitting next to you.

Facebook’s Pittsburgh offices. Photo courtesy CTG Photography.
Facebook’s Pittsburgh offices. Photo courtesy CTG Photography.

“Most of us, myself included, don’t live in the places where we grew up,” says Yaser Sheikh, director of research at Facebook Reality Labs in Pittsburgh, in a blog post. “I’ve spent my life moving from city to city, and each time, I’ve left relationships that are important to me.”

Making an avatar that looks like you is a complex project.

“We colloquially refer to this as passing the ‘ego test’ and the ‘mother test,’” says Sheikh. “You have to love your avatar and your mother has to love your avatar before the two of you feel comfortable interacting like you would in real life. That’s a really high bar.”

It’s some of Facebook’s most future-oriented work, and it’s being done here in Pittsburgh.

“We brought together a world-class team of researchers, engineers, hardware technicians, technical program managers and technical artists focused on building the future of connection within virtual and augmented reality, by enabling authentic social interactions in AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality),” says Facebook spokesman Tom Parnell. “If virtual reality lets us immerse ourselves fully in digital content using a headset, today, AR lets us overlay virtual objects onto the real world primarily through the camera on a smartphone.”

“We challenged our team to play a central role in the development of these technologies that we believe will one day enable billions of people to meet, work and play games with anyone, anywhere in the world. The result — ultra-realistic avatars that let two people interact in VR in real-time.”

The new location is a building called District 15, which features 100,000 square feet of lab and office space on four floors, with room for up to 250 employees. Facebook, which now has about 100 workers, also is keeping its original office at Schenley Plaza in Oakland, which opened in 2015.

“Pittsburgh is a prime location for engineering teams,” says Parnell. “The tech community here is world-class, from the incredible academic institutions to the vibrant startup ecosystem to the bevy of global companies who have teams here.”

New work by artist-in-residence Jeff Schwarz at Facebook’s Pittsburgh offices.
New work by artist-in-residence Jeff Schwarz at Facebook’s Pittsburgh offices.

To give the new offices a distinctive look, Facebook has invited several artists-in-residence to bring contemporary art into the workplace.

“In Pittsburgh, we’ve commissioned an incredibly talented group of local artists who have created unique installations that not only enhance the architecture of our new workspace but inspire interaction, dialogue and learning for our employees,” says Parnell.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.