Snap jumps into brain-computer interfaces with NextMind Acquisition

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Snap, the company responsible for amplifying the duck face and introducing filters that make you feel like you’re dying officially enters the field of brain surveillance.

Wednesday, the company announcement it had acquired Parisian neurotech startup and brain-computer interface maker NextMind in a bid to bolster its long-term vision for augmented reality. NextMind is known for its work related to non-invasive BCIs, a still-emerging technology Snap and competitors like Meta see as crucial to one day transforming augmented reality glasses from expensive, garish nerd gear into something everyday people might actually find useful. Snap said the NextMind team will advance the technology in Snap Labs, a research arm of the social media company responsible for creating the instant camera and Eyeglasses smart glasses.

“We look forward to working with NextMind to overlay computing on the world and improve how technology can serve humanity,” a Snap spokesperson said. They wouldn’t tell Gizmodo how much it intends to spend to acquire NextMind, though BCI raised a $4.6 million funding round in mid-2018. according to CrunchBase. NextMind did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

While the exact dollar amount of this acquisition remains unclear, Snap has spent a lot of money on AR more generally. Last year Snap spent about $500 million to acquire AR eyewear lens maker WaveOptics. Snap followed that up this year in purchase display manufacturer Compound Photonics.

NextMind published its first $399 BCI development kit in 2020. This device would monitor neural activity and then translate brain signals into commands to allow users to play games or interact with computers using their thoughts. Going forward, Gizmodo has learned that NextMind will halt sales of its device to focus on search with Snap, although it will still offer ongoing support for some of its products. NextMind’s approximately 20 employees will continue to operate from Paris.

Snap’s Past Hardware Adventures Aren’t Exactly What You’d Call awesome. The company launched its first iteration of Spectacles in 2017. By the end of the year, only 0.08% of Snapchat users had purchased the glasses, according to Tech Crunch. Worse still, more than 50% of Spectacles users stopped use them after the first month. Ultimately, that first attempt to make Spectacles a thing would have cost Snap nearly $40 million, with hundreds of thousands of unsold units left in warehouses.

Despite all of this, Snap held on and last year managed to Release one of the most well-received AR-ish glasses (though not exactly a horizontal bar, and the glasses were limited to an undisclosed number of designers). Snap is betting the introduction of BCIs will take the technology to the next level, giving users the power to seamlessly use glass to replace phones and other devices. That’s the pitch, at least. Meta, one of Snap’s main competitors working on BCI-enabled AR wearables, has describe this technological horizon as “The next era of human-computer interaction”.

Evan Spiegel, CEO and co-founder of Snap, called augmented reality the evolution of the camera.

“We believe that looking to the future, one of the primary use cases for the camera will be augmented reality,” Spiegel told tech reporter Kara Swisher during a maintenance. “And that the best way to experience augmented reality is through glasses. Because it’s much more immersive, it’s hands-free so you can interact with the space around you, much like you do with your physical environment.

Snap's latest pair of glasses

Snap’s latest pair of glasses
Picture: Break

Snap and Meta are betting that the next era of computing won’t require piercing a transmitter into users’ skulls, at least for now. This is contrary to the efforts of other companies like Elon Musk Neuralinkwho chose to go full Cyberpunk 2077 with his BCIs.

Through surgical implants, Neuralink believes it can send signals to users’ brains to treat neurological brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease or even potentially allow people with disabilities to use their thoughts to control artificial limbs or other prostheses. In the meantime, the company founder, in typical Musk fashion, had taken his company’s mission statement much further and claims Neuralink could dramatically improve a user’s computation, ultimately making humans “symbiotic with AI.”

Even if it is possible (the the jury is still out on that point), invasive BCI companies like Neuralink might struggle to find willing customers. A whopping 78% of American adults interrogates in a recent Pew Research poll said they wouldn’t want a so-called IQ-enhancing brain chip even if it were available. Only 13% of respondents thought the proliferation of these devices would benefit society. That doesn’t exactly scream consumer confidence. Companies interested in BCI like Meta have also avoided the surgical approach for fear of public scrutiny. “I don’t want to see congressional hearings on that one,” Mark Zuckerberg would have joked to staff in 2019.

With the acquisition of NextMind, Snap hopes to have it both ways. In theory, the company’s BCI technology expertise could help AR glasses overcome their usability hurdle while avoiding surgery-related headaches. This non-invasive approach also means that Snap won’t have to wait for the FDA or other agencies approve the use of their technology in humans.

“This [NextMind’s] the technology does not ‘read’ thoughts or send signals to the brain,” Snap said on Wednesday.