Snap, the company responsible for amplifying duck face and introducing filters that make you look like you’re dying, is officially getting into the brain monitoring business.
On Wednesday the company announced it had acquired Paris-based neurotech startup and brain-computer interface maker NextMind in an effort to bolster its long-term augmented reality vision. NextMind is known for its work related to non-invasive BCIs, a still-emerging technology Snap and competitors like Meta view as crucial to one day transforming Augmented Reality glasses from expensive, garish nerd gear into something regular people might actually find useful. Snap said the NextMind team will advance technology in Snap Labs, a research arm of the social media company responsible for creating the Snap Camera and Spectacles smart glasses.
“We’re looking forward to working with NextMind to overlay computing on the world and improve the way that technology can serve humanity,” A Snap spokesperson said. They wouldn’t tell Gizmodo how much it intends to spend to acquire NextMind, though the BCI raised a $4.6 million seed round in mid-2018 according to CrunchBase. NextMind did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Though the exact dollar amount of this acquisition remains unclear, Snap’s been spending big on AR more generally. Last year, Snap spent around $500 million to acquire AR glasses lens maker WaveOptics. Snap followed that up this year by purchasing display maker Compound Photonics.
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NextMind released its first $399 BCI dev kit back in 2020. That device reportedly monitors neural activity and then translates brain signals into commands to let users play games or interact with computers using their thoughts. Moving forward, Gizmodo has learned NextMind will halt sales of its device to focus on research with Snap, though it will still offer continued support for some of its products. NextMind’s approximately 20 employees will continue to operate out of Paris.
Snap’s past ventures into hardware aren’t exactly what you would call great. The company launched its first iteration of Spectacles back in 2017. By the year’s end, just .08% of Snapchat users had purchased the glasses, according to TechCrunch. Worse still, over 50% of Spectacles users stopped using them after the first month. In the end, that first attempt at making Spectacles a thing reportedly cost Snap close to $40 million dollars, with hundreds of thousands of unsold units left in warehouses.
Despite all that, Snap has stuck it out and last year managed to release one of the more well-received AR-ish glasses (though that’s not exactly a high bar, and the glasses were limited to an undisclosed number of creators). Snap’s betting the introduction of BCIs will take the technology to the next level, granting users the power to seamlessly use glass to replace phones and other devices. That’s the pitch, at least. Meta, one of Snap’s primary competitors working on BCI compatible AR wearables, has described this technological horizon as “The Next Era of Human-Computer Interaction.”
Evan Spiegel, Snap’s CEO and co-founder has called augmented reality the evolution of the camera.
“We believe looking at the future that, ultimately, one of the primary use cases of the camera is going to be augmented reality,” Spiegel told tech journalist Kara Swisher during an interview. “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, sort of in the way that you do with your physical environment.”
Both Snap and Meta are betting the next era of computing won’t require drilling a transmitter into users’ skulls at least for now. That’s contrary to efforts by other firms like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which has opted to go full Cyberpunk 2077 with their BCIs.
Through surgical implants, Neuralink believes it can send signals to users’ brains to treat brain neurological disorders like Parkinson’s or even potentially let disabled people use their thoughts to control artificial limbs or other prosthetics. The company’s founder meanwhile, in typical Musk fashion, had taken his company’s mission statement much further and claimed Neuralink could significantly enhance a user’s computation, ultimately making humans “symbiotic with AI.”
Even if that’s possible (the jury’s still out on that) invasive BCI ventures like Neuralink might be hard-pressed to find any eager customers. A whopping 78% of U.S. adults surveyed in a recent Pew Research poll said they wouldn’t want a so-called IQ-enhancing brain chip even if it was available. Just 13% of respondents thought the proliferation of those devices would be good for society. That doesn’t exactly scream consumer confidence. BCI interested companies like Meta have similarly shied away from the surgical approach over fears of public scrutiny. “I don’t want to see the congressional hearings on that one,” Mark Zuckerberg reportedly joked to staff in 2019.
With the NextMind acquisition, Snap’s hoping to have it both ways. In theory, the company’s BCI tech expertise could help AR glasses surpass their usability roadblock while also avoiding the headache of dealing with surgical procedures. That non-invasive approach also means Snap won’t have to sit around waiting for the FDA or other agencies to approve use of their technology in humans.
“This [NextMind’s] technology does not ‘read’ thoughts or send any signals towards the brain,” Snap said on Wednesday.