Stirring the speculation pot about the company’s long-rumoured smart glasses, yesterday Facebook agreed to acquire the CTRL-Labs startup which has been developing a wristband capable of reading a wearer’s thoughts and using them to control computers and other devices.
Facebook’s head of augmented reality and virtual reality, Andrew Bosworth, officially made the announcement about the acquisition on — you guessed it — Facebook, and revealed the startup will be joining the Facebook Reality Labs team in hopes of accelerating its development and availability to consumers.
Sources familiar with the matter told CNBC the deal was worth somewhere between $US500 ($735) million and $US1 ($1.5) billion, although a Facebook spokesperson claimed it was actually less than a billion.
So what does Facebook plan to do with CTRL-Labs technology? One of the last remaining roadblocks to making smart devices smaller, wearable, and genuinely usable, is ensuring that people can still interact and operate them. Tapping your finger on a smartphone’s screen and software keyboard works just fine, but like a few companies, Facebook has aspirations for smart glasses eventually being a replacement for phones and tablets, and tapping away on a lens with your fingers is simply not a solution.
Voice assistants have come a long way, and undoubtedly will eventually become a key way to interact with wearable devices like smart glasses, but people aren’t always comfortable talking to their tech when out in public. Would you want to remind your smart specs to add “toilet plunger” to your shopping list while amongst your co-workers? There are alternatives to voice commands, including technologies like eye-tracking, but simply thinking about what you want a device to do, and having it happen, would be the ultimate solution.
That’s exactly what CTRL-Labs has been working on, and it helps explain why Facebook would want to pony up almost a billion dollars to help make it a reality.
The device, which could eventually be integrated into something as subtle as a smartwatch, detects electrical signals sent from the brain, through your spinal cord, and eventually your hands and fingers, telling them to operate a mouse, keyboard, or even a touchscreen. Those signals are intercepted, decoded, and then translated to commands a device can understand, so all you’d have to do is think about typing to send a message.
If Facebook is ever able to fully realise the technology, it would be a huge selling point for its rumoured smart glasses. But other companies, like Thalmic Labs who created the MYO armband, eventually abandoned their pursuits of similar technology. MYO sold its patents to CTRL-Labs earlier this year before renaming itself to North and developing its Focals augmented reality smart glasses instead. That doesn’t necessarily mean a mind-reading wristband is not feasible technology, however. If any company has enough money to sink into R&D to eventually make it happen, it’s Facebook.