On the eve of its annual virtual and augmented reality developers conference, Oculus Connect, executives at Facebook announced the completed acquisition of hardware startup CTRL Labs for an undisclosed sum. The New York-based company’s core product has yet to be released to developers but is marketed as a wrist-worn sensor designed to interpret electrical activity in muscles and transmit control signals to connected computing devices.
A relative newcomer to the space, CTRL Labs joins an exciting yet nascent field of brain-computer interaction startups, featuring companies like Neurable, Tactual, and Wearable Devices. With approaches ranging from direct EEG to precise neuro-muscular monitoring, no clear winner has emerged in the search for an efficient and latency-free way to transmit intent directly from neurological impulses to an external sensor. However, recent major developments and product releases from VR and AR stakeholders alike have begun to galvanize smaller companies in creating novel interaction modalities that may one day serve as the keyboard and mouse of spatial computing.
Facebook's acquisition of CTRL Labs signals an important long-term commitment to pioneering meaningful, next-generation computing devices that bring with them a generational step-change in hardware interfaces and human-computer interaction. Oculus CTO John Carmack took great pains during his OC6 keynote to specify that his vision of VR entails a universal computing platform. Far from being a gaming and entertainment device, VR should enable socialization, productivity, and all the other key functions current computers achieve today.
Muscle-monitoring wrist controllers have been widely available technology for some years; notably, CTRL Labs received intellectual property and data from an earlier hardware startup, Thalmic Labs (now known as North) in June of this year. However, demand for such alternative control modalities has been virtually non-existent as more traditional methods, like gamepads, keyboards, and especially capacitive touch screens have matured significantly, and benefit from an ongoing feedback loop in software development which prevents such devices from adapting easily to new input hardware.
In other words, as more and more end-user computing devices featuring mouse- and touch-based interfaces come to market, third party developers and major platform stakeholders will see less reason to accommodate these next-generation interfaces. On the other hand, direct worn interfaces are ideal for platforms like virtual and augmented reality for this exact reason. Best practices for software and UX design throughout the immersive computing landscape are still being developed and agreed upon.
Facebook's intent is clear following the acquisition; even if a hardware offering based on the technology does not emerge within the next few years, the company wishes to approach VR and AR not as a gaming platform, but a proper universal computing platform.