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Facebook reveals plan to let you control augmented reality with your thoughts

The social media firm is working on a wristband for interacting with digital gadgets

Facebook hopes to develop a wristband that can react to nerve signals. (Facebook)

Your wrist might be the key to unlocking new ways to interact with the digital world.

Facebook is researching how to take minute nerve movements in your arm and translate them into gesture controls for your gadgets. The idea announced Thursday would help the social networking giant launch augmented reality glasses, which would rely on new ways to control computers and interact with the virtual world.

Picture this: Your home assistant asks if you’d like to play your favorite podcast, and a flick of your fingers in the air lets you click play. Or, you’re wearing AR glasses that display images over the real world, and you scroll through your text messages in midair while your smartphone stays in your pocket.

Those are the scenarios Facebook has in mind if it were ever to deploy a muscle-sensing wristlet.

“We’re developing natural, intuitive ways to interact with always-available AR glasses because we believe this will transform the way we connect with people near and far,” Facebook said in a blog post.

But to launch such a product, the company would also need access to a new type of data: your thinking.

Facebook says the wristband product would rely on a “neural interface” that adapts to you and your environment.

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In demonstration videos, the prototype looks like a thick black iPod strapped around the wrist. In theory, sensors on the device would be able to pick up what hand movements you intend to make through a technique for recording nerve signals known as electromyography (EMG).

“If you send a control to your muscle saying, ‘I want to move my finger,’ it starts in your brain. It goes down your spine through motor neurons, and this is an electrical signal. So you should be able to grab that electrical signal on the muscle and say, ‘Oh, okay. The user wants to move the finger,’ ” Nathalie Gayraud, a research scientist at Facebook Reality Labs, says in a video.

Rolling out nerve-sensing gadgets would enable Facebook to reinvent the computer “click.” So instead of using a mouse or tapping on your phone, you’d think about moving a finger to trigger a reaction in AR.

It’s too soon to tell whether the device will ever come to market. Facebook says the research is still in the early phases, and any type of consumer product would be years away. Still, it isn’t the first to imagine futuristic glasses enhancing the real world with digitized imagery.

The conversation surrounding AR spectacles hit in a big way when Google announced Google Glass, a $1,500 pair of smart glasses that flopped with consumers in 2014. The search conglomerate gave them a facelift and re-marketed them for businesses. Snap also tried with its Spectacles for Snapchat, a $150 pair of snazzy glasses equipped with cameras, audio and microphones. Those also failed to take the world by storm.

Facebook is going after your wrist because that’s where people are used to donning wearables. People have used Fitbits for over a decade and Apple Watches for half as long. Your wrist is also close to your hands, which people typically use to control devices.

“It’s located right next to the primary instruments you use to interact with the world — your hands. This proximity would allow us to bring the rich control capabilities of your hands into AR, enabling intuitive, powerful and satisfying interaction,” Facebook says.

The Mark Zuckerberg-led company insists that data privacy is a top concern, as it should be with a device that takes personalization to a whole new level. Facebook notes that information would be stored locally on the device rather than sent into the cloud. The only information meant to be collected is the intent for you to move your hand, the company says.

The announcement comes two years after the social media company bought CTRL-Labs, a start-up developing a wristband capable of turning brain impulses into computer input. The acquisition was reportedly worth between $500 million and $1 billion. The firm was absorbed by Facebook’s Reality Labs, which is also in charge of Oculus virtual reality headsets.

Controlling devices through thoughts has been shown to work. BrainCo, for example, developed a headband with sensors that lets people move items at a distance using their mind. The company later developed robotic limbs that detect and react to muscle signals.

The research news is part of a trio of announcements related to Facebook’s 10-year push into immersive technologies.

Last week, the company said it’s working on a “stylish” pair of glasses to replace your need for a computer or smartphone. Its next revelation will come later this year and has something to do with an all-day wearable, “soft robotics” and haptic gloves, Facebook says.