Meta, Apple, and a slew of other tech companies are building augmented reality glasses with displays that place computing on the world around you. The idea is that this type of product will one day become useful in a similar way to how smartphones transformed what computers can do. But how do you control smart glasses with a screen you can’t touch and no mouse or keyboard?
It’s a big problem the industry has yet to solve, but there’s a growing consensus that some type of brain-computer interface will be the answer. To that end, Snap said on Wednesday that it has acquired NextMind, the Paris-based neurotech startup behind a headband that lets the wearer control aspects of a computer — like aiming a gun in a video game or unlocking the lock screen of an iPad — with their thoughts. The idea is that NextMind’s technology will eventually be incorporated into future versions of Snap’s Spectacles AR glasses.
The company’s roughly 20 employees will remain in France and work for Snap Lab, the hardware group responsible for Spectacles
NextMind’s first product, a $400 headband developer kit introduced two years ago, will be discontinued. But the company’s roughly 20 employees will remain in France and work for Snap Lab, the hardware group responsible for Spectacles, a forthcoming camera drone, and other unreleased gadgets. A Snap spokesperson refused to say how much the company was paying for NextMind. The startup raised about $4.5 million in funding to date and was last valued at roughly $13 million, according to PitchBook.
Snap’s purchase of NextMind is the latest in a string of AR hardware-related deals, including its biggest-ever acquisition of the AR display-maker WaveOptics last year for $500 million. In January, it bought another display tech company called Compound Photonics.
Snap isn’t the only big tech player interested in brain-computer interfaces like NextMind. There’s Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which literally implants a device in the human brain and is gearing up for clinical trials. Valve is working with the open-source brain interface project called OpenBCI. And before its rebrand to Meta, Facebook catalyzed wider interest in the space with its roughly $1 billion acquisition of CTRL-Labs, a startup developing an armband that measures electrical activity in muscles and translates that into intent for controlling computers.
That approach, called electromyography, varies from NextMind’s. Instead, NextMind’s headband uses sensors on the head to non-invasively measure activity in the brain with the aid of machine learning.
In a 2020 interview with VentureBeat, NextMind founder and CEO Sid Kouider explained it this way: “We use your top-down attention as a controller. So when you focalize differentially toward something, you then generate an [intention] of doing so. We don’t decode the intention per se, but we decode the output of the intention.”
A Snap spokesperson said the company wasn’t committed to a single approach with its purchase of NextMind, but that it was more of a long-term research bet. If you’re still curious about NextMind, here’s a video of Kouider unveiling the idea in 2019: