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Facebook sees computing’s future on your wrist

Scott Rosenberg

WASHINGTON DC: Facebook researchers are rapidly learning how to replace mouse clicks and screen taps with finger twitches. They’re doing it by putting a band on your wrist that reads nerve impulses sent by your brain to your hand.

The big picture: Tech insiders widely expect the next generation of computing after the smart phone will be built around some combination of glasses, headphones and other worn devices.

The challenge is figuring out how users navigate information and make choices in such a world.

What’s new: By picking up brain signals, Facebook’s futuristic wristband can interpret small finger-motions as, for instance, typing on an invisible keyboard or clicking on a button that isn’t there.

This “intelligent click” will be paired with images you’ll likely see via augmented-reality glasses — so that the menu items yo-u’re selecting, for instance, might appear to be hanging in the air around you.

The whole system is stage-managed by predictive AI programs that work to understand where you are and what you might need. When you step into the kitchen, for instance, you might see a recipe.

The goal is to give users “exactly the right interaction at the right time,” says Tanya Jonker — one of a crew of Facebook Reality Labs researchers who demoed the new technology for reporters this week.

The science behind Facebook’s new vision for the human-computer interface — electromyography, or EMG — can read nerve signals in muscles anywhere in the body. But Facebook researchers said the wrist is the ideal spot to apply it.

The brain devotes lots of neurons to fine control of hand motion, providing plenty of information for the devices to read.

Also, people are already used to wearing stuff on their wrists.

“Brain-computer interfaces” is a field Facebook has been talking about and investing in for years now, but the company is emphasizing that we won’t get our hands on this technology for some time.

Sean Keller, Facebook Reality Labs director of research, said Facebook was unveiling details of this work early because it knows there are pitfalls and hopes to steer around them with input from outside the company.

“We want to open up an important discussion with the public about how to build this technology responsibly,” he said.

Likely trouble spots:

The more “context” your device knows, the more data it has on you, and Facebook has a long record of playing fast and loose with user information. Researchers say they know they’ve entered a potential minefield here.

“Building a new platform allows us to build security, privacy and safety in from the very start,” said Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer.

Facebook is all about connecting people. But the examples the researchers discussed, where lone users are cooking a recipe or choosing music to play, are far simpler than interactions between people using these tools, where the potential for privacy problems multiply.

Facebook makes money by selling ads, and the “all around you” interface it’s building could easily become overloaded with commercial come-ons.

Of note: The Facebook team nodded to the scope of their ambition by showing a still from Douglas Engelbart’s celebrated 1968 “mother of all demos.”

That event introduced the mouse and many other foundations of the graphical computer interfaces we use today.

Facebook wants to invent the pieces for what comes after that.