Facebook wants to evolve how we use computers with wrist-based augmented reality tech

Facebook has given the first glimpse at a wrist-based computer input system it's working on as part of its augmented reality (AR) development.

The social media company has huge ambitions for the technology, hoping it'll revolutionise how humans interact with computers and even calling it a "form of a superpower".

But the tech presents huge ethical concerns. With privacy and online safety an international hot topic - particularly regarding Facebook itself - the company is seeking public input into the development to try and avoid the dangers it could present.

Videos released by the company show how a device worn around a person's wrist can map signals sent by their brain to their hand, which could replace a keyboard and mouse or touchscreen in how they interact with a computer.

This practice of electromyography (EMG) is not new, but Facebook's prototypes appear to be very highly advanced.

"The signals through the wrist are so clear that EMG can understand finger motion of just a millimetre," says Facebook in a blog post about the technology.

"That means input can be effortless. Ultimately, it may even be possible to sense just the intention to move a finger."

The wrist-based devices will also provide haptic feedback that Facebook says is much more advanced than the vibration tech currently used in mobile phones and gaming controllers.

At a virtual briefing Newshub attended, examples Facebook showcased of how this could be used included emulating the feeling of using a bow and arrow, along with navigation. In the latter case, that would mean being able to walk around a new city with one's vision completely unobstructed, with directional taps on the wrist informing them of where they wanted to go instead of a map they had to look at.

The device worn on the wrist would work in conjunction with AR glasses, for which Facebook says it's developing a new adaptive interface.

Facebook wrist-based computer interaction technology.
Photo credit: Facebook

"One of the most exciting aspects of AR is to help people stay more present in the world, even while interacting with their digital devices," said Tanya Jonker, manager of research science at Facebook Reality Labs.

"Think about how you use your smartphone today... imagine you want to listen to music. You need to find your phone and unlock it, then you need to navigate to your music app, find the album you want to play, then hit play.

"This leaves a big gap between your intent to interact with that device and that end action of playing the music. What if we could minimise or eliminate that gap altogether? What if instead of searching through menus, you could just do this with one simple click?"

Demonstration videos of Facebook's tech show users interacting with virtual keyboards, messaging and other basic apps like timers and music players.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the virtual briefing was the technology precisely mapping out finger movements of a user who was born and has always lived without actual fingers.

It's the sort of thing that we used to only see in science fiction.

However, using EMG devices owned by Facebook would potentially give the company an extreme level of insight into how people think. Given controversies the company has gotten itself into in recent years, it having access to this new power could be a troubling concept.

The company says it's revealing the prototypes now as it cannot alone solve the ethical questions they present and needs help to do so.

"We want to open up an important discussion with the public about how to build these technologies responsibly," said Sean Keller, director of research science at Facebook Reality Labs.

"We want to be transparent about what we're working on so that people can tell us their concerns about this technology."

When Newshub asked about how much control users would have over any information collected about them through this tech, Keller said getting that right is "core to the research process".

"We start with a principled framework around privacy and control and enabling people to feel connected and use our technology in a way that empowers them," he said.

"We've built this into the research process, which has a long timeframe. We're having these conversations, we're holding workshops on topics like ethics. We want to ask the right questions of the community about what the concerns are around this technology."

In addition to the public, governments and international regulatory bodies will likely be starting to pay attention to this new technology being developed by Facebook.