Facebook acquires CTRL Lab start-up to decode brain signals

facebook buys ctrl-labs

Facebook is often blamed for getting in its user’s heads. A few days ago, it acquired a company that will actually allow it to access your brain—but only so you can control devices. Facebook purchased a neural interface startup CTRL-Labs, pronounced “Control” labs, a four-year-old company that uses a combination of neuroscience and machine learning to allow people to control computer interfaces simply by brainpower.

“It grabs your intention so you can share a photo with a friend using an unnoticeable motion or just by, well, intending to,” says Facebook’s VP of AR/VR Andrew Bosworth in an announcement about the company’s new toy. CTRL-Labs has the ability 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 technique with which we type and swipe with our phones in the future.

CTRL-labs is amongst several companies attempting to connect the brain to a machine and considered a practical one. CTRL-labs was established in 2015 by Patrick Kaifosh and Thomas Reardon and, who both earned their PhDs in neuroscience from Columbia University. Earlier in his career, Reardon spent nine years at Microsoft and was then technology chief at Openwave Systems. He is known to create the project that became Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s first web browser. CTRL-labs collected $28 million in February from Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Alphabet’s GV.

crtl labs wristband

The company will join Facebook Reality Labs, a division of the social media company that is working to develop augmented-reality smart glasses. The magnitude of the deal was between $500 million and $1 billion, a source close to Facebook confided. A Facebook spokesperson said it was lesser than $1 billion.

Rather than drilling into your head, which is a painful way for typing or VR-wandering, the CTRL-Labs uses a band on your wrist which allows people to control their devices.  The neurons in the spinal cord send electrical signals to the hand muscles telling them to move in particular ways such as to press a button or click a mouse. The wrist band which looks like an old fashioned, big watch will interpret those signals and translate them into a digital sign your device can understand, allowing you with control over your digital life. When I went to the company in 2017, I played a game of Asteroids with my brain and watched a CTRL-Labs employee type by jerking his fingers.

So CTRL-Labs could function as an interface to Oculus’ alternate realities. It also may be a companion for Facebook’s more important neuroscientific missions. That includes an attempt to use the brain to type directly, using technology to read your mind when you think of what you want to type next. Facebook’s Building 8 research division took the initiative under the leadership of former ARPA head Regina Dugan, before she suddenly left Facebook in 2017.

From a strategic viewpoint, the purchase, for an unrevealed price, makes sense for both companies. CTRL-Labs, which had collected $67 million in project funding so far, gets resources to accelerate development.  Hitherto, the company has not launched a product; it has requested developers to join a waiting list for an original version.

Facebook’s AR/VR division, created from its 2014 acquisition of Oculus, underwent some bumpy years, but currently has been reorganized and stepped up by Bosworth, a longterm devotee of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recognized as “Boz.” His sphere now comprises of all of the hardware, with the Portal smart screens and the new Oculus Quest, recently relaunched.

However, the long-term conceptions of the division actually rest 1,000 miles north of Menlo Park, in the Seattle offices of facebook’s Reality Labs. The lab’s principal scientist, Michael Abrash, previously of Valve and Microsoft, has been employing an “A” group of scientists to push the boundaries of virtual and augmented reality, and achieve Zuckerberg’s dream of VR as the next key platform. Maybe one-day CTRL-Labs technology will help us control the images we see in the mixed-reality spectacles the labs are cooking up.

ctrl lab

Any procurement that Facebook makes these days will come under inspection. Facebook has been blamed for putting out prospective competitors through acquisitions, including Whatsapp and Instagram. The deal has been struck at a time when Facebook is already facing an antitrust probe by Federal Trade Commission. CTRL-Labs doesn’t seem on the same track, but it’s likely to stimulate a government review, on the chance that Facebook is up to something. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a wristband receiving brain signals.

In 2017, Reardon, while discussing CTRL labs, said he would like his devices, whether they are sold by his company or by partners, to be on a million people within three or four years. After the acquisition, he’s no more the CEO of his company. But now he’ll be advancing his technology for a company that has users in billions.


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