DARPA Unveils “Cortical Modem” Project, An Implanted Chip That’s Promising Glasses-Free Augmented Reality

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The Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a legendary US Department of Defense research lab with a notable place in the history of modern technology. It was here, in the 1960s, that technology visionary Bob Taylor built the world’s first wide-area computer network, and later it was here that Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf developed TCP/IP, a technology framework that went on to become the foundation of the modern Internet. As a result, DARPA is largely credited with having invented the Internet. Historically, the lab has stood as a peer alongside other renowned skunk works sites, such as the Xerox PARC lab and Google X Labs.

DARPA, in the 1970s, pre-empted the commercial efforts of Google by putting cars with cameras on the road in an effort to map major cities and build 3D mapping technologies that could help battlefield commanders plan assaults. Even Siri, the famous personal assistant app embedded in all iOS devices, started its life as a DARPA project, before being spun off and eventually sold to Apple. The lab has fielded new technologies in nutrition, sleep deprivation, battlefield wound care, telepathic robotics, and armor. In recent years, however, its direct impact on consumer technology has waned and the lab has developed the reputation of being a place for pragmatic “do-ers” rather than futurists and dreamers.

Now, with a new director at the helm, DARPA is working to change this perception. In Spring 2014, the agency quietly opened the Biological Technologies Office, a new department that would focus on the intersection of biology and technology. Last week, the lab held a two-day conference in Silicon Valley to show off some of its new projects, and the Biological Technologies Office immediately captured both the attention and the imagination of the audience with its proposed “cortical modem.”

DARPA’s Biological Technology Office is building an implantable computer chip that will use neural connections to superimpose data directly into the field of view, creating what would be the first headset-free approach to augmented reality. The implications are immense. Adding to the excitement, DARPA reports that the technology will carry a very scalable total manufacturing cost of just $10 per chip.

The chip’s design is based on optogenetics, a way of integrating computer chips with biological systems by altering the DNA of neurons in a way that makes them sensitive to light. The chips then use light to transmit information through neurons and to control the biological systems they are implanted in. Early work on optogenetics started in 2000, and by 2010 the technology was named the “Method of the Year” for integrating technology with biological systems. At the same time, Science called it one of the major breakthroughs of the last decade.

Now, DARPA is working to push the new technology into defense applications that might give soldiers a fundamental advantage on the battlefield.  While a cortical modem would provide meaningful new information for soldiers, the technology would undoubtedly outgrow its DARPA roots and make its way into the commercial space, where a near infinite number of use cases would await it.

The role that augmented reality might play in healthcare has seen very little discussion to date, likely because true AR is still years away, and the healthcare industry already has its hands full just trying to modernize its outdated core applications. Still, AR will absolutely have a home in healthcare should the day come that its moves beyond the prototype stage. AR could support chronic disease management initiatives by pushing medication and exercise reminders to patients. Surgeons could work through an AR-based checklist while in a sterile operating room. Clinicians could receive critical alerts via AR, cutting down on response time. The possibilities are endless.

The obvious question is whether consumers would be willing to have a chip implanted just to achieve true augmented reality. Where will consumers draw the line between themselves and technology? Today, consumers are still warming up to more straight-forward concepts like Google Glass and DARPA’s cortical modem technology would probably fail commercially, but the relationship between consumers and technology is one that is constantly evolving. Over the course of 50 years, computers have moved from research labs to our offices at work, to our homes, and now to our pockets, all with little resistance from consumers. Wearables appear to be next, as computers leave our pockets and integrate with our reality in more compelling ways through glasses and smartwatches. As the relationship between consumers and technology continues to evolve, what will follow wearables? DARPA’s cortical modem may be our first peak at the form factor to follow wearables.


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