Facebook is developing “wearable patches” designed to be stuck on the neck of virtual reality users for them to communicate with the twitch of a muscle.
The social media giant wants to more accurately convey how the human body appears to others in the digital world by interpreting how brain signals influence the smallest of movements.
According to papers published in May by the European Patent Office, Facebook has blueprinted technology able to “detect and interpret neuromuscular systems” that reacts to tiny muscle movements and bloodflow while the user is immersed in the virtual world.
These biosensors would help “generate musculoskeletal representations of a human body” in virtual or augmented reality, the company says.
Its patent, still at the development stage, builds on the work of neuroscientists at US brain-computing start-up Ctrl-Labs, acquired by Facebook last year for hundreds of millions of pounds, whose electronic wristband translates human hand movements into on-screen actions.
Users appear to be given Jedi-like skills as the device measures voltage bursts from contractions of arm muscle fibres.
Now, Facebook foresees its patches with motorised smart sensors stuck to a VR user's forehead, chest, leg, arm, foot or neck.
The patent gives the example of a sensor activated by the neck’s carotid artery as it could “sense flood flow to the user’s brain”, the patent says, while connected to a computer via bluetooth or a wireless radio frequency chip of the kind seen in contactless credit cards.
Audio, visual or haptic feedback vibrations of varying intensity would be given to the patch wearer when they make actions “based on neuromuscular signals sensed” to measure body language and measuring muscle fatigue.
It is also suggested the invention could measure the force by which objects are gripped and could show “covert gestures” a person makes, which might normally be “imperceptible to another person”, such as slightly tensing their muscles.
Daniel Wetmore, research scientist at Facebook’s Reality Labs, writes in the patent that the patches could help “physical rehabilitation scenarios where the user works to strengthen muscles".
He says the neuromuscular sensors could help athletes better measure body metrics and their hone technique, such as making better basketball shots or improving their golf swing, and might even control a vehicle or robot.
This improved visualisation could help a doctor or coach better measure a patient’s progress, the patent adds.
Facebook, which also owns VR goggles firm Oculus, also believes the technology could be used in therapy for people with brain injury conditions, such as stroke and cerebral palsy, or with muscle tremors from motor neurone disease.
Rob Burley, director of campaigns, care and support at Muscular Dystrophy UK, urged digital giants to involve people with disabilities in innovation development by tapping into their “wealth of expertise and experience” and also help smash barriers for those who still “struggle to access even the most basic technology”.
He said: “We welcome a large and renowned company such as Facebook exploring ways of making social media more inclusive.
“Technology is a key part of being able to live an independent life for many people with muscle-wasting conditions.”
Facebook declined to comment.