Facebook's F8 development conference is currently underway. So far, the social media giant has outlined several of its visions for AI, networking and virtual reality, but the work of its Building 8 product development team is perhaps the most ambitious of all: Facebook researchers are exploring ways to type with your brain and hear through your skin.
Regina Dugan, VP of Engineering and head of Building 8, outlined those projects in an F8 keynote. First, she raised the possibility: What if it were possible to type with your brain?
This capability would have obvious benefits for paralyzed and non-vocal individuals, but Dugan pointed out that it would have enormous ramifications for the rest of the population as well. Essentially, this capability could function as a "brain mouse for AR" (augmented reality) and allow us to send messages without even having to take out a phone.
Mark Zuckerberg reiterated more of her analogies in a Facebook post: "Our brains produce enough data to stream 4 HD movies every second. The problem that the best way we have to get information out into the world – speech – can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem. We're working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain about 5x faster than you can type on your phone today."
Brain control may seem like a pipe dream, but Dugan assures that it's not so far-fetched. She cited one study of an ALS patient with paralysis currently able to type eight words per minute with her brain, made possible with brain-implanted electrodes and experimental equipment. Facebook wishes to develop non-invasive sensors, perhaps through optical imaging.
In another sensory flip-flop, Dugan discussed the possibility of hearing through one's skin. Just as Braille allows blind individuals to "read" small bumps, Facebook is investigating a tactile method for allowing the blind and deaf to communicate.
Dugan discussed a case study of a blind and deaf man able to understand and repeat verbal language entirely through electrical stimulation and the resulting sensations on his skin. His example is one of the driving forces behind Facebook's current research exploring language learning through feel.
Some day, Dugan projects, this type of silent communication could have even more widespread benefits, such as not being separated with language barriers. By connecting this types of sense-bending technology to the language centers of the brain, we could one day "hear" in one language and speak in another.
Building 8's ambitious projects represent long-term research and investments, but they're part of a set of foundational technologies that Facebook is banking on to help foster global community and continue growing its network.