Facebook on Monday announced the acquisition of CTRL Labs, a New York startup that builds technology that can help your electronic device read your brain waves.
The startup will join Facebook Reality Labs, a division of the social media company that is working to develop augmented-reality smart glasses.
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Facebook’s head of augmented reality and virtual reality, officially made the announcement about the acquisition on Facebook (Obviously) and revealed the startup will be joining the Facebook Reality Labs team in hopes of accelerating its development and availability to consumers. CNBC got information from sources familiar with the matter that the deal was worth somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion, although a Facebook spokesperson claimed it was actually less than a billion.
“Technology like this has the potential to open up new creative possibilities and reimagine 19th-century inventions in a 21st-century world,” said Mr. Bosworth in a post announcing the acquisition. “This is how our interactions in VR and AR can one day look. It can change the way we connect.”
Thomas Reardon and Patrick Kaifosh, who both received their PhDs in neuroscience from Columbia University founded CTRL-labs in 2015. Earlier in his career, Reardon spent nine years at Microsoft and was then technology chief at Openwave Systems.
New York-based CTRL-labs is among a growing number of groups using neurotechnology to try to connect human thoughts to computers. The company differs from others in that it only uses non-invasive technologies that do not require surgery, focusing on the development of a wristband that reads electrical signals from a user’s brain to map and move a digital arm on a screen, even if the person is not moving.
“The field is moving very fast,” CTRL-labs’ chief executive Thomas Reardon told the Financial Times in July. “We can do things we could not have contemplated just five years ago.”
CTRL-labs has raised $67m over three funding rounds, the latest of which was $28m in February this year from Alphabet’s GV and Amazon’s Alexa Fund. Now that it will become part of Facebook’s Reality Labs team, the researchers and engineers at Facebook are tasked with developing AR glasses, according to Mr. Bosworth.
The vision for CTRL-labs’ technology is that it will use a wristband that allows people to control their devices, Bosworth said.
“Here’s how it’ll work: You have neurons in your spinal cord that send electrical signals to your hand muscles telling them to move in specific ways such as to click a mouse or press a button.
The wristband will decode those signals and translate them into a digital signal your device can understand, empowering you with control over your digital life. It captures your intention so you can share a photo with a friend using an imperceptible movement or just by, well, intending to.”
The deal comes at an interesting regulatory moment as Attorneys general in a number of U.S. states announced earlier this month that they are opening antitrust investigations into Facebook, including scrutinies into whether it used acquisitions of rivals including Instagram, WhatsApp, and Onavo to eliminate competition. Although the acquisitions were given the green light by regulators at the time, these scrutinies are something that is bound to keep acquisitions like this one under critical observation.
It looks like other companies that found themselves under investigation by various world governments after a series of privacy scandals might ease up a little on the development of products that seek to read our minds. Although to Mark Zuckerberg, the risk that the company might fall behind on next-generation computing technologies is too scary to ignore.
Zuckerberg’s company has been working on brain-computing technology since 2016 as part of the company’s Building 8 division, which was a skunkworks lab launched to boost the company’s efforts in developing consumer hardware products. In July, Facebook provided an update on its brain-computing efforts saying that research conducted with the University of California San Francisco showed promising progress, but was still years away from commercialization.
If CTRL-Labs succeeds in building the thing it’s working on now and cements Facebook’s position as the market leader in AR and VR, maybe we will wish the Federal Trade Commission had blocked the sale, or even put conditions on it. Just maybe!