Facebook mind reading: the ultimate VR/AR interface

Mind reading is a powerful method of allowing users to control VR/AR environments. Facebook is getting in on this game. They have a head start on the tech but what’s the best way for them to capture this opportunity in the long run?

Dean Pelton’s haptic VR set-up (from the TV show Community)

There are many problems that VR/AR has yet to solve. One of these is how we, the users, are going to command and interface with these new virtual environments. Keyboards are impractical, haptic gear is too unwieldy and text-to-speech is indiscreet and unsuited for many uses (‘Close all windows except the window that I’m looking at right now and resize that window to fill the entire field of vision’). The holy grail of VR/AR interfaces? Mind reading.

Facebook is investigating how to tap into mind reading as a “new means for input to AR”.[1] One use case they’ve proposed is the “brain click” – “you could brain click to dismiss a notification that popped up on your AR glasses, for example.“[2]

Facebook executive Regina Dugan announcing Facebook’s mind reading research (at the F8 Developer Conference, 19 April 2017)

We’re closer to this reality than you might think. Already, researchers have been able to use neural transmission to move cursors,[3] type letters[4] and convey basic words. [5]

It’s not far-fetched to consider that, in the near future, Facebook will develop technology that’s capable of basic instructional interpretations (the VR/AR equivalent of moving a mouse, clicking), reading basic emotions (sadness, excitement, etc.), and typing.

The temptation for Facebook:

Once Facebook develops MindReader™ (let’s call it that for now), they will be tempted to keep the technology proprietary. This vertical integration fits in with their other moves in VR/AR so far including acquiring their own hardware (Oculus) and developing their own virtual worlds (Facebook Spaces[6]). In such a scenario, the technology will be treated like a feature. Value creation will come from making Facebook’s VR/AR software more user-friendly and featureful; value capture from revenue streams (probably ads) on Facebook’s software, and selling Facebook’s hardware.

Facebook’s VR app, Spaces. Does Facebook have the operating model capabilities required to win in VR social media? It’s not so clear that they do.

Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it’s predicated on Facebook’s proprietary ecosystem winning the VR/AR wars. This is anything but certain. VR/AR is anyone’s game both in terms of hardware and software. Moreover, Facebook’s operating model doesn’t currently have strong capabilities in creating awesome digital environments or developing hardware.

What Facebook’s should do:

Rather than keep the technology for proprietary use, Facebook has a greater chance of making MindReader™ a success if they allow it to be freely available. Specifically, they should:

  • Partner with as many manufacturers as possible to incorporate the hardware technology
  • Release an SDK for VR/AR developers to utilise in exchange for control over data
  • Link users’ MindReader™ activity to their Facebook accounts (almost akin to social login)

This strategy allows Facebook to:

Align themselves with whoever wins in VR/AR – when it’s unclear who the winners will be, a parallel search strategy is the way to go. And when there’s heterogeneity in what consumers want from VR/AR, it makes sense to align yourself with a variety of applications/hardware. By making MindReader™ available for public use, Facebook will ensure that they get access to a bit of everything, including, the eventual winners in the ecosystem.

Utilise data analytics to improve value creation – getting broad access to data will allow Facebook to provide phenomenal value-creating analytic services. There could be significant improvements in the sophistication of targeted advertising (e.g., measuring emotional responses to stimuli). Facebook could also offer developers tools such as rapid AB testing (e.g., change the environment: see immediate responses).

Like Google Adsense, Facebook could develop ads for third-party environments, not just their own

Leverage network effects to sustain a competitive edge – a large base of users and use cases also allows Facebook to tap into direct network effects to improve MindReader’s™ performance. This improved performance can lead to strong indirect network effects. Moreover, MindReader™ could track user’s preferences and neural ‘calibrations’. As a result, the more users on Facebook’s MindReader™, the more likely developers are to utilise it. Given low incentives for any party to multihome (why would you if the technology works?), these network effects could be critical to Facebook winning what will likely be a winner-take-all market.

Capturing value in this world could come from selling advertisers and developers information on users and their preferences. Moreover, Facebook could run a Google AdSense-esque offering, charging advertisers and developers for generating personalised experiences/advertisements in their AR/VR environments.

Facebook already has many of the business model elements required to pull off such a strategy. Strong analytical capabilities? Check. Processes for managing the ad buy-sell process? Check. A huge data bank on users? Check and soon-to-be even more so. The one capability that Facebook will definitely need to put more effort into is that of developing users’ trust. It’s a brave new world out there. Would you trust Facebook with reading your mind?





[1] https://www.recode.net/2017/4/19/15361568/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-brain-mind-reader-regina-dugan-building-f8

[2] http://www.theverge.com/2017/4/20/15375176/facebook-regina-dugan-interview-building-8-mind-reading-f8-2017

[3] http://www.pcworld.com/article/209553/Move_a_mouse_cursor_with_your_brain.html

[4] http://gizmodo.com/5922208/scientists-invent-mind-reading-system-that-lets-you-type-with-your-brain

[5] http://www.livescience.com/47708-human-brain-link-sends-thoughts.html

[6] https://www.wired.com/2017/04/facebook-spaces-vr-for-your-friends/


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Student comments on Facebook mind reading: the ultimate VR/AR interface

  1. Meili – this is fascinating and terrifying (!) at the same time. I think you outline effectively if they build it, how this platform should be integrated to capture value.

    One question I’d like to pose is whether or not you think this technology _should_ exist just because it can. Of course, there are obviously huge use cases for mindreader when it comes to things like disabilities, advancing a social mission as well. But are there problematic interpretations of this kind of technology such that maybe it crosses ethical boundaries that should not be crossed? Furthermore, I know it’s only a small step from how advertising works now, but are you comfortable being targeted for ads based on some of your deepest thoughts? I find myself thinking about Dave Eggers’s book called The Circle, and the perils of what happens when we take technology like this just a notch too far.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ellen! You pose an excellent question. I personally think this is progress that can’t be stopped. It seems like the next logical step in the evolution of technology and doesn’t cause enough immediate harm to justify halting its development.

      There is another question that comes to mind of ‘how do we control it’? Do we need to establish laws that govern what information organisations can read from our minds and how they use that information? And will there be an element in which corporations ‘self regulate’ and protect users’ rights to privacy because otherwise their customers would flee?

      It may also be the case that humanity gets more comfortable with living in a constant mode of surveillance. Perhaps the next generations won’t find the actions of the NSA at all surprising or offensive. Maybe with this evolution, our understanding of what is ethical or not will evolve too?

  2. Meili – solid post – didn’t know any of this stuff was happening.
    I’m skeptical of FB’s ability to dominate given it’s large installed base. I’m imagining a facebook connect login option when I go to log into my mind reading VR function. I’d probably pass and try to create an individual account. Do you have any sense of customer skepticism or willingness to accept a company like Facebook owning access to such a personal aspect of our individuality? If users do accept, then Facebook will add significant value to nascent hardware startups… if users are not interested, then Facebook’s scale might prove a disadvantage.

    1. Thanks, Alex! Glad it was educational 🙂

      I imagine a situation where FB says to app developers: anyone is free to utilise the technology but in exchange your users have to either link it to a FB account or create a MindReader™ account. If they go the MindReader™ account option, that account can still be linked across apps (it just won’t have their FB data).

      It can be a problem if customers are sceptical of giving FB access to this information. The question is whether that scepticism outweighs their desire to use the functionality/apps that the technology enables. Lots of us hate how much access FB has to our personal information and yet we still use it. So, who knows?

  3. Nice post Meili, very informational.

    In your opinion can Facebook pull off getting the mind reading technology to be used by other app developers unless it allows people to control “deletion” (both real time and with a lag) of the events Facebook has already read from their minds and also to forget the associated sub-events that Facebook might have created from reading those events?
    Do you think app developers would be ready to deploy this into their VR/AR apps?

    1. Thanks for the comment Sidharth. The parallel that comes to mind in this instance is Snapchat: it claims that its snaps are ephemeral when they are often still stored somewhere. Does this upset users? Yes. Have users really changed their behavior as a result of it? You could argue not really.

      As for developers, I believe that there’s always a contingent of front-of-the-curve developers willing to give the latest tech a try. To make it go mainstream, however, FB would need to go a bit of cultivation – working with hardware developers, and promoting the technology to software developers.

      1. I agree Meili, developers at the frontier would adopt followed by the mass and Facebook would have to do the initial seeding. The comparison with Snapchat is correct, however I feel that on Snapchat you are clicking and taking some actions and there is some control whereas with mind it can get completely random (too many thoughts cross our mind some intended and some unintended) and for that I feel there would have to be some deletion experience.

  4. Really interesting but frightful information! It’s interesting that Facebook would be the company working on commercializing brain machine interfaces. Facebook doesn’t have a strong history of hardware development and commercializing science. Just also curious whether Facebook is trying to solve the mass market adoption of HMD as well, as Mindreader really hinges on users having hardware in their homes / on the go. Perhaps this is their foray into trying to leapfrog and get involved as a module of AR, because it seems like they have been too focused (but not successful) into VR space with Occulus.

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