Facebook wants you to be able to control the internet with your mind, and listen to the world around you ... with your skin.
Engineers at the company's Building 8 division are working on what they call a silent speech interface, which could one day type 100 words per minute just by decoding neural activity. They're also building an artificial cochlea (the part of your ear that translates vibrations into signals your brain can understand) that can be attached to the skin.
"We've only begun to scratch the surface of what's possible," Building 8 head Regina Dugan (above) said during a speech at Facebook's f8 developer conference here on Wednesday. The speech interface, powered by non-invasive sensors that can measure brain activity hundreds of times per second, could be useful for people with disabilities or to simplify the process of interacting with alternate and virtual reality.
In addition to typing, the system could also serve as a sort of computer mouse for your brain, which would allow you to perform "yes/no" clicks, among other commands. The challenge, Dugan said, is getting the sensors to only pick up on the thoughts you want to transform into text or commands, instead of your entire stream of consciousness. That would require extremely precise optical imaging sensors, a technology that doesn't currently exist.
Meanwhile, the skin sensors would harness a concept first discovered by Louis Braille more than a century ago: your brain can recognize patterns in the things you touch and turn them into words in a similar fashion to how your ear processes and decodes sounds via the cochlea. So Facebook wants to create an artificial cochlea to create an entirely new "haptic vocabulary," Dugan said. Just as the speech interface could help you share your own thoughts without speaking, the skin sensors could let you listen to a speech or other sound without actually hearing it.
But don't expect to buy any of this technology any time soon. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed out, it's all very theoretical at this point. "Technology is going to have to get a lot more advanced before we can share a pure thought or feeling, but this is a first step," he said.
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