Facebook on Wednesday unveiled a project in development at a secretive R&D division headed up by a former Pentagon research chief: a brain-computer interface that could purportedly enable people to type with their thoughts – at speeds far exceeding traditional input methods.
According to Reuters and The Verge, the project is in the works at the social network’s Building 8 research group, a division led by former DARPA director and Google executive Regina Dugan, and was formally announced during a presentation at Facebook’s F8 developer conference.
Building 8 is said to be working on multiple projects, including a system that would enable users to type words using only their minds. While Dugan cautioned that any product launches are years away, she added that the thought-to-type interface is “closer than you may realize.”
Speaking at the developer conference on Wednesday, Dugan referred to the system as “a brain mouse for AR,” which according to The Verge suggests that it would receive direct input from neural activity and eliminate the need to track the movement of hands or other body parts, such as those used by Microsoft’s HoloLens hand-tracking technology.
Research division also working on touch-based communications tech
Currently, people using brain implants are capable of typing eight words per minute, she said, and Reuters noted that the company’s goal is to partner with researchers at universities across the US to make a non-invasive interface capable of typing 100 words per minute by thinking.
Not only could such technology allow users to send a text without actually physically touching their smartphone, but Dugan said that it could help disabled people communicate, Reuters said. The brain-computer interface is currently only being used in limited medical trials, but she said that her team at Building 8 is working to create a version that could be released to the public.
“Eventually, we want to turn it into a wearable technology that can be manufactured at scale,” she said during the event, according to BBC News. “Even a simple yes/no ‘brain click’ would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural. Technology is going to have to get a lot more advanced before we can share a pure thought or feeling, but this is the first step.”
Another project in the works at Building 8, said BBC News and Reuters, is a system that draws its inspiration from Braille and would allow people to communicate via touch. Such technology would also allow for immediate translation across languages, she explained. “One day, not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin, and you to feel it instantly in Spanish.”
To help turn such ambitious projects into reality, Facebook signed collaboration deals with 17 universities, including Harvard and Princeton, in December, and has also accumulated a team featuring dozens of engineers and scientists from UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, according to various media reports. They hope to have a prototype of the thought-to-text interface available for medical testing within the next two years.
Image credit: Facebook