It first appeared on March 9 as a tweet on Andrew Bosworths timeline, the tiny corner of the internet that offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a Facebook executive these days. Bosworth, who leads Facebooks augmented and virtual reality research labs, had just shared a blog post outlining the companys 10-year vision for the future of human-computer interaction. Then, in a follow-up tweet, he shared a photo of an as yet unseen wearable device. Facebooks vision for the future of interacting with computers apparently would involve strapping something that looks like an iPod Mini to your wrist.
Facebook already owns our social experience and some of the worlds most popular messaging appsfor better or notably worse. Anytime the company dips into hardware, then, whether thats a very good VR headset or a video chatting device that follows your every move, it gets noticed. And it not only sparks intrigue, but questions too: Why does Facebook want to own this new computing paradigm?
In this case, the unanswered questions are less about the hardware itself and more about the research behind itand whether the new interactions Facebook envisions will only deepen our ties to Facebook. (Answer: probably.) In a media briefing earlier this week, Facebook executives and researchers offered an overview of this tech. In simplest terms, Facebook has been testing new computing inputs using a sensor-filled wrist wearable.
Its an electromyography device, which means it translates electrical motor nerve signals into digital commands. When it’s on your wrist, you can just flick your fingers in space to control virtual inputs, whether youre wearing a VR headset or interacting with the real world. You can also train it to sense the intention of your fingers, so that actions happen even when your hands are totally still.
Facebook’s vision for its wrist-worn device includes being able to type on a virtual desktop keyboard.
This wrist wearable doesnt have a name. Its just a concept, and there are different versions of it, some of which include haptic feedback. Bosworth says it could be five to 10 years before the technology becomes widely available.
All of this is tied to Facebooks plans for virtual and augmented reality, technologies that can sometimes leave the user feeling a distinct lack of agency when it comes to their hands. Slip on a VR headset and your hands disappear completely. By picking up a pair of hand controllers, you can play games or grasp virtual objects, but then you lose the ability to take notes or draw with precision. Some AR or mixed reality headsets like Microsofts HoloLens have cameras that track spatial gestures, so you can use certain hand signals and the headset will interpret those signals which sometimes works. So Facebook has been using this EMG wearable in its virtual reality lab to see if such a device might enable more precise hand-computer interactions.