Once a farfetched idea, brain-computer interfaces are suddenly receiving an influx of attention as companies look to streamline our interactions with technology. In a world dominated by devices, the ability to control electronics with brainwaves could be a welcome change for screen-weary consumers.

At its April F8 conference, Facebook asked: “What if you could type directly from your brain?” The company’s secretive Building 8 division is working on a brain-computer interface that would allow users to talk to Facebook with their minds, Facebook R&D head Regina Dugan announced at the conference. Non-invasive scanners will capture light signals in the brain and translate the neural activity into text, Dugan explained. She estimated that the technology could be in use within a few years.

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Dugan on stage at F8.

The technology would be “a silent speech interface, one with all the speed and flexibility of voice, but with the privacy of typed text,” Dugan explained. “Better yet, with the ability to text a friend without taking out your phone, or to send a quick email without missing the party.”

“Our brains produce enough data to stream four HD movies every second,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook after the F8 conference. “The problem is that the best way we have to get information out into the world—speech—can only transmit about the same amount of data as a 1980s modem. We’re working on a system that will let you type straight from your brain, about five times faster than you can type on your phone today.”

Elon Musk is also working to shorten the distance between brain and machine. His latest venture, Neuralink, wants to make embed-able chips that allow for “consensual telepathy” between individuals. Musk hopes to make the technology available within four years, he explained in a lengthy, illustrated post on the blog Wait But Why. Neuralink will first be available to those with disabilities, but could eventually lead to technology supporting advanced forms of cognition that makes humans more competitive with artificial intelligence, Musk speculated.

Current research on brain-computer interfaces has mostly been limited to the medical field. US military research agency DARPA has created a mind-controlled prosthetic limb, while researchers in Switzerland have trialed a device that deciphers the thoughts of paralyzed patients. Last fall, the world’s first Cybathlon for disabled athletes even included a brain-computer interface race for fully paralyzed pilots.

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Participants in Cybathlon's BCI race.

But today, companies are looking for more consumer-facing applications for the technology. One potential use to enhance virtual or augmented reality experiences. VR company MindMaze is already working on a neural interface that could bring more expression to virtual avatars by scanning for users’ facial expressions, such as a smile or a wink.

Facebook also links brain-computer interfaces to AR. “Eventually, we want to turn it into a wearable technology that can be manufactured at scale,” Zuckerberg continued. “Even a simple yes/no ‘brain click’ would help make things like augmented reality feel much more natural.”

Brain-computer interfaces are still several years away from becoming mainstream (or, according to skeptics including an MIT scientist, even farther). But the gap between consumers and devices is already narrowing. While advances like voice technology make communicating with devices more natural, brain-computer interfaces could eliminate the need for screens, or even voice, altogether.

As consumers demand an ever-closer relationship with their devices, brands should keep an eye on the brain-consumer interfaces on the horizon. For more on the future of technology, download Speak Easy, the new trend report on voice interaction from J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group London and Mindshare Futures.

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