Facebook views AR and VR as the futrue, but its plans go beyond just creating filters and funny memes. On day 2 of its annual F8 Developer conference, Facebook revealed more details about its Building 8, and what sort of futuristic projects it is developing. The one that has gotten a lot of attention: technology which could let people type straight from their brains.
Facebook’s Building 8 is the company’s secretive research unit, and according to the social network this is being modeled after DARPA, the US Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given Building 8’s head is Regina Dugan, who was previously leading something similar at Google, and was earlier director of DARPA.
Dugan revealed Facebook’s Building 8 is working on two ideas. One is technology that could let people type directly from their brains, and the other could allow people to understand and feel words through their skin or via touch.
Type with Brains
“Our world is both digital and physical. Your brain has 86 billion neurons…it is capable of streaming 1TBps. So how do we get out all of this information from the brain into the world,” said Dugan at the keynote event. The idea with text isn’t to decode all your thoughts, but rather your speech, and could help those whose motor movements are restricted due to any debilitating illnesses.
“Speech is essentially a compression algorithm. So what if you could type directly from brain? It sounds impossible, but it is closer than you realise. It is just the kind of fluid human interface needed for AR,” pointed out Dugan.
In one of the videos played at the keynote, Facebook revealed how one such prototype system was letting a person with ALS type with their brain. The computer figures out what she is thinking and types it on the interface, around eight words per minute. All of this is thanks to a small chip, which is embedded inside the brain that helps decode speech.
As Dugan pointed out the idea is not to decode random thoughts, but rather speech as the brain interprets it, these being the words or thoughts one is sending to the speech centre of the brain. As Facebook’s head of Building 8 described it, in the future such a system could allow people to text friends without taking out their phones.
However she also admitted that currently the system requires surgery, which “won’t scale” and they will need to create something non-invasive. The ultimate goal for Facebook is to create a system that can let users type 100 words per minute with their brain, which as Dugan pointed out is faster than what we can currently do on our smartphones.
She also pointed out the technology will be need to precise to the mm, without signal distortion, and that currently no such technology exists in today’s world.
Speech via touch
The other Facebook idea could just make the future independent of language, where people could share words or ideas with mere touch. An idea could be transmitted just via touch, and the project revealed how some thoughts can be transmitted via skin.
Facebook showed how they were able to transmit a total of nine words to one of their employees on this project with this “tactile vocabulary.” The system would let people feel words through skin, creating a sort of “artificial cochlea ear” on the skin, according to Dugan. The acoustics are what the brain reinterprets as words.
For Facebook, which is stressing on AR and VR, these projects are still years away from going mainstream. But clearly, the social network is seriously exploring how our interaction with technology can be redefined.