CTRL-labs wristband gives you superpowers (sort of)

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Photo Credit: R. Douglas Fields

A Manhattan-based startup is developing wearable technology that decodes motor signals and allows users to control machines with their mind.

Yes, you read that right. Mind control is (now) a genuine possibility.

CTRL-labs was founded in 2015 by Microsoft Internet Explorer creator Thomas Reardon and fellow neuroscientists, Patrick Kaifosh and Tim Machado. Formerly known as Cognescent, CTRL-labs has developed an approach for a brain-computer interface (BCI). The technology is being developed at the New York City office with the intention to become the first mass-market BCI system.

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The prototype in development is a non-invasive surface electromyographic (EMG) neural interface. The EMG system enables the capture of electric signals created by muscles. Simply by putting on the electrode-studded wristband, a user can, for example, type out a document without ever moving a muscle. The interface decodes the intention of the brain and completes the action based on the signals, with or without actual movement.

“Think of the way you try to select text today when you’re trying to edit,” says Reardon. “Think about the way you use a mouse and how slow that task is. What if you were typing and selecting text simultaneously, without having to move your hand over to the mouse? All these things become much richer and much more natural once you move away from devices and decode the actual nerves.”

Currently, the prototype wristband only works with a small number of applications, such as basic computer games. However, CTRL-labs plans to offer a CTRL development kit later this year for commercial use; the company’s goal is for a million device users within the next three to four years.  

A distinctive quality of the CTRL-lab’s sensor technology lies within its design––it’s no coincidence the prototype is a wristband. Current mass-market EEG (electroencephalography) headsets must interpret broad brain activity patterns to execute even the simplest of commands; in comparison, a wristband bypasses our complicated mess of brain waves and only needs to decipher isolated muscle signals.

Although surgical brain implants are currently being developed to accomplish similar tasks, they also come at a higher cost and pose a significant risk to the user. Reardon believes that CTRL-labs’ wearable device is safer and more cost-efficient to use for brain-controlled movement.

Photo Credit: Alex Walsh

The current prototype is still in the early stages of development. As with any experimental technology, developing an intuitive and ready-to-use interface is the cornerstone of mainstream success. For now, the device still requires a thorough training period to correctly execute simple tasks, such as mouse clicks, key taps, and phone swipes.

To execute more complex tasks, the learning curve becomes exponentially steeper. Extensive training and practice are necessary to accomplish more sophisticated functions such as writing complete text messages without manual input.

Future applications for CTRL-lab’s technology are near-limitless, including uses like virtual and augmented reality, tablets, kiosks, and robots, as well as for medical practices. Johns Hopkins University is currently testing the device for neurorehabilitation in stroke victims and recipients of hand transplants. Their goal is to use the system as a training platform for people with prosthetics.

CTRL-labs’ technology has gained significant interest from venture capitalists as well. Major investors include GV (the venture capital firm of Alphabet), Amazon Alexa Fund, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Tim O’Reilly Fund, Lux Capital and others.

Lux Capital co-led a $28 million funding round with GV for CTRL-labs in May 2018 to raise the company’s funding cap to $39 million. Lux Capital founder and managing director Josh Wolfe reportedly tweeted, “I saw the future in front of me [, and] fell in love with it. Tech so unique it’s indistinguishable from magic.”

With industry titans like Google and Amazon investing in CTRL-labs’ success, public awareness (and therefore investor interest) is beginning to gain traction.

Although we’re still years away from these devices hitting retail shelves, the reality is we’re rapidly approaching an age where technology and magic are becoming virtually indistinguishable from one another.

What do you think about CTRL-labs’ mind-controlled wristband? Are you ready to say goodbye to fallible keyboards and screen mashing? Or is this device just another in a long line of technological pipedreams?

Let us know what you have to say in the comments below!

Top Photo Credit: R. Douglas Fields