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Facebook’s Switch on AR Brain Interfaces Reflects Market Realities

Facebook is ditching its research into the futuristic idea of communicating with just your mind. Instead, it will focus on wrist-based neural interfaces—a way of controlling software based on reading nerve impulses via the wrist. Facebook believes that tech shows promise as a way to control AR glasses. And to be honest, it’s sure to be far more palatable to the average person than a Facebook brain sensor “cap”. 

Facebook’s rationale for the shift is a practical one. In a blog post announcing the change, Facebook says the wrist-based approach “has a nearer-term path to market.” Mark Chevillet, who oversaw Facebook’s research into brain-computer interfaces worn on the head—devices that essentially convert thoughts into digital actions—told MIT Technology Lab that consumer adoption of such devices “is still a very long way out.”

In other words, as potentially transformative as such research is, Facebook doesn’t see it as helping to popularize AR glasses within the next decade. To make a useful, marketable brain-sensing product in the near future, Facebook would need a miracle advance in non-invasive technology. Surgical brain implants are a non-starter, as Mark Zuckerberg has indicated (that seems like a good call). 

Meanwhile, Facebook has boasted about how well its wristband prototypes work in the here-and-now. 

As for what it learned in its brain-computer interface research, that won’t go to waste. Facebook plans to open source the software it has developed and says it will let other researchers use its headworn prototype devices. That still leaves big questions about what this means for the scientists and designers who focused primarily on this work at Facebook, though. Even if they’re all able to stay and contribute to Facebook’s other neural interface projects, some might choose to look for new opportunities elsewhere.

Xbox Eyes a Different Path to VR

In late 2019, Xbox chief Phil Spencer was blunt about the VR market being too small to warrant supporting a headset. Now, however, it seems Spencer might be changing his mind.

“When I look at a scenario like [the Oculus Quest 2],” Spencer said yesterday on a gaming news podcast from Kinda Funny, “I think about xCloud, I think about the Xbox Live community, I think about other things. How could we bring content to a screen like that? Whether we do something like that through a first party or a third-party partnership is a second step.”

Note that Spencer is considering flipping the usual gaming script, which usually dictates that a console maker would treat something like a VR headset as an accessory to the console, as Sony did with PlayStation VR. But Microsoft is shifting its strategy away from one focused on developing its own hardware to one where its software is key. As a result, Spencer sees the potential to offer Xbox services and games on an existing headset.

In the same vein, owning an Xbox console is increasingly optional for Xbox customers. Microsoft is serious about its plan to make its Game Pass subscription service the main point of entry to the Xbox ecosystem; players with an Xbox console or PC can run games on those, but xCloud (included in the subscription) allows for streaming gameplay on phones and other devices. Bringing Game Pass to the Quest 2 isn’t beyond the realm of possibility—if anything, it seems more likely than Game Pass on Nintendo hardware, something that’s been rumored for years.

Other news:

  • DigiLens and Mitsubishi announced a new partnership on plastic waveguides for AR glasses, positioning them as a cheaper and more rugged alternative to the glass waveguides used in today’s AR headsets.

Thanks for reading Reality Check. I’d love to hear your thoughts any time at [email protected] And if you know someone who might like this newsletter, just forward it along and point them to www.theinformation.com/reality-check so they can sign up for it.

See you next week,

Mathew


Mathew Olson is the writer for The Information’s Reality Check, a newsletter devoted to following trends, innovations and news in AR and VR. He is based in New York and can be reached by email at [email protected] or Signal at 646-694-0692.
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