Our colleague Scott Stein of CNET.com spent two weeks using the neural interface developed by French startup NextMind with the Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset. Here are his impressions.
Equipped with my Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, I find myself in a room surrounded by aliens whose huge heads flicker black and white. I turned to one of them and stared at him. Suddenly her head exploded. I look at others, and the same thing happens. After that, she fixed a flashing sign on the door and presto, she left the room. All of these actions, I accomplished thanks to a tape placed at the back of my head that detected visual cortical activity using electrodes. This is a neural interface designed by NextMind. The device comes in the form of a disk covered with small rubber pads that can read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into commands.
It is not easy to measure the true potential and potential of neural interfaces. Especially since many startups have invested in this sector with very different projects. For example, CTRL-Labs, a neurotechnology company acquired by Facebook in 2019, has developed an arm band that can detect electrical signals that nerve cells in the spinal cord send to the muscles of the hand. Another company, Mudra, will launch a bracelet for Apple Watch later this year that will also reveal the brain activity associated with the wrist.
Facebook believes in neural interfaces
I got to try a preview of Mudra a year ago, discovering how I was able to interpret my finger movements, and even roughly measure the pressure I exerted when I pressed it. Even stranger still, Mudra can work when you don’t move your fingers at all. It can help people who use prosthetics.
NextMind plans to follow a similar path in assistive technology, while aiming for a future where neurological systems can combine with others. Andrew Bosworth, head of virtual and augmented reality at Facebook, says neural interface technology appears within three to five years, as it can be combined with wearables like smart glasses.
My experience with NextMind was troublesome and great. The SDK has its own tutorial and includes demos that can be played on Windows or Mac, as well as a Steam VR demo that I tried on Oculus Quest with a USB-C cable. The plastic bluetooth headband contains headband but can also be detached to connect it directly to the virtual reality headphone strap.
A technique that is still in its infancy but promising
All NextMind experiences consist of looking at large areas of a subtly flashing screen that can be “clicked” with focus or stare. At first, I was having a hard time figuring out how to activate something, and I found myself trying to open my eyes more, breathe in, or focus more. Sooner or later it will click the thing I was looking for. In a space with about five flashing “buttons” on the screen, the neural interface knew how to detect what I was looking at. And all this without relying on eye tracking, just a mental activity.
The NextMind development kit is not yet intended for the general public. The Mudra Band, although launched as an Apple Watch accessory via Indiegogo, is also experimental. I have no doubt that we will soon see more of these technologies. At CES 2021, there was a glove-shaped “nervous mouse” designed to improve reaction times by detecting the incoming clicks of hair faster than a conventional mouse.
Currently, neural interfaces for general use are still in their infancy and are not robust enough to be able to replace a keyboard, mouse, or touch screen. But let’s remember that speech recognition seemed rudimentary in its early days. See where we are today …
Photo: Scott Stein / Cnet
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