Facebook is often accused of getting inside its user’s heads. On Monday, it bought a company that will literally allow it to access your brain—but only so you can control devices.
The startup it purchased is CTRL-Labs (pronounced “Control” labs), a four-year-old company that uses a mix of machine learning and neuroscience to allow people to manipulate computer interfaces simply by brainpower.
“It captures your intention so you can share a photo with a friend using an imperceptible movement or just by, well, intending to,” says Facebook’s VP of AR/VR Andrew Bosworth in a statement about the company’s new toy. CTRL-Labs has the potential to be a transformative interface to virtual- and augmented-reality devices—think of the technology as a front end to Oculus. It also might be the way we type and swipe with our phones in the future.
CTRL-labs is among several companies trying to connect the brain to a machine, and considered a pragmatic one. It was co-founded by Thomas Reardon, who created the project that became Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s first web browser, and then left technology for a spell to get a PhD in neuroscience. His cofounder is neuroscientist Patrick Kaifosh.
Instead of drilling into your head, which is a painful way to do some typing or VR-wandering, CTRL-Labs uses a band on your wrist to detect signals your brain sends to your hand. The band, which looks like a big and unfashionable watch, beams the signals to a phone or computer. That allows you to control a machine by simply thinking that you want to move your hand in a certain way. When I visited the company in 2017, I played a game of Asteroids with my brain and watched a CTRL-Labs employee type by twitching his fingers.
So CTRL-Labs could serve as an interface to Oculus’ alternate realities. It also may be a partner for Facebook’s more exotic neuroscientific expeditions. That includes an effort to use the brain to type directly, using technology to read your mind when you think of what you want to type next. That effort began in what used to be Facebook’s Building 8 research division, run by former ARPA head Regina Dugan, before she abruptly left Facebook in 2017.
From a strategic perspective, the purchase, for an undisclosed price, makes sense for both companies. CTRL-Labs, which had gotten $67 million in venture funding so far, gets resources to speed up development. The company has not yet released a product; it has invited developers to join a waiting list for an early version.
Facebook’s AR/VR division, born from its 2014 acquisition of Oculus, suffered some rocky years, but more recently has been reshuffled and leveled up by Bosworth, a longtime loyalist of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg known as “Boz.” His domain now encompasses all of hardware, including the new Oculus Quest and the Portal smart screens, recently relaunched.
But the long-term prospects of the division really rest 1,000 miles north of Menlo Park, in the Seattle offices of the Facebook’s Reality Labs. The lab’s chief scientist, Michael Abrash, formerly of Microsoft and Valve, has been hiring an A team of scientists to push the frontiers of augmented and virtual reality, and fulfill Zuckerberg’s dream of VR as the next major platform. Maybe one day CTRL-Labs technology will help us manipulate the images we see in the mixed-reality spectacles the labs are reportedly cooking up.
Any acquisition that Facebook makes these days will come under scrutiny. Facebook has been accused of snuffing out potential competitors through acquisitions, including of Instagram and WhatsApp. CTRL-Labs doesn’t seem to follow that pattern, but it’s likely to prompt a government review, on the chance that Facebook has something up its sleeve. Even if it’s just a wristband accepting brain signals.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/facebooks-latest-purchase-gets-inside-users-headsliterally