Facebook today announced that it will acquire neural interface startup CTRL-Labs, a company that makes a wristband capable of transmitting electrical signals from the brain into computer input.
The deal, which Bloomberg reports is worth somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion, is the most substantial acquisition Facebook has made in the last half decade, since it paid $2 billion to acquire virtual reality company Oculus VR in 2014. It also marks a substantial increase in investment in Facebook’s growing hardware ambitions, as the CTRL-Labs tech will be put to use in future augmented and virtual reality projects at the social network.
Facebook wants to build new ways to interact with computers, including neural interfaces
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, the head of AR and VR at Facebook, made the announcement on his personal Facebook page this evening. Bosworth says CTRL-Labs, which was co-founded by Internet Explorer creator and neuroscientist Thomas Reardon, “will be joining our Facebook Reality Labs team where we hope to build this kind of technology, at scale, and get it into consumer products faster.”
Patrick Kaifosh is CTRL-Labs’ other co-founder, and he is also a neuroscientist. Reardon, the company’s CEO, left his career in e software engineering to study neuroscience and received his PhD in 2016. The company was founded the year prior and it has since raised $67 million in venture capital.
In an interesting twist, CTRL-Labs purchased a series of patents earlier this year around the Myo armband, a gesture and motion control device developed by North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs. The Myo armband measured electromyography, or EEG, to translate muscle activity into gesture-related software inputs, but North moved on from the product and now makes a stylish pair of AR glasses known as Focals. It now appears the technology North developed may in some way make its way into a Focals competitor by way of CTRL-Labs.
Bosworth says CTRL-Labs’ wristband will be instrumental in developing new ways of interacting with machines without needing traditional mouse-and-keyboard setups, touchscreens, or any form of physical controller whatsoever. “Technology like this has the potential to open up new creative possibilities and reimagine 19th century inventions in a 21st century world,” he writes. “This is how our interactions in VR and AR can one day look. It can change the way we connect.”
For Facebook, the acquisition represents a renewed commitment in the type of futuristic tech that appeared to elude the company’s Building 8 initiative, an experimental lab modeled after Google’s X division that was briefly run by former DARPA director Regina Dugan. The lab struggled to produce any meaningful research or products, beyond Facebook’s Portal video chat device, and it was eventually shut down and its various projects split up between other divisions.
Remnants of Building 8 became the Facebook Reality Labs team Bosworth oversees, but only after Dugan left the company in late 2017 without much to show for her tenure outside bold brain-machine interface announcements at the company’s F8 developer conference two years ago. The brain-computer interface projects are still underway at Reality Labs as of July. But what once seemed like the pipe dreams of Facebook executives designed to fashion the company in Google’s image now seem much more serious with Reardon and CTRL-Labs in the mix.
Just last week, news broke that Facebook is designing two different models of AR glasses, one like Snap Spectacles and another said to be a standalone Google Glass-style device, that are prime candidates for the kind of interface tech CTRL-Labs has developed.