Why Mary Lou Jepsen Left Facebook: To Transform Health Care and Invent Consumer Telepathy

Her device uses near-infrared to provide MRI-resolution imaging in a cheap wearable

4 min read

Headshot of a smiling woman with blond hair.
Photo: Gulnara Niaz

Mary Lou Jepsen has done well for herself in the tech industry. Most recently she was an engineering executive at Facebook working on its Oculus virtual reality gear; before that she spent three years at Google X, running advanced projects on display technology.

These were good jobs, and Jepsen liked them. “I said, never again, not another startup!” she told IEEE Spectrum in an interview at SXSW Interactive. “But then I had a big enough idea that I had to leave my extremely cushy job at Facebook,” she says. “The VR stuff was pretty cool. But transforming health care and telepathy… there’s no contest.”

Yep, transforming health care and telepathy, those are the items on her to-do list. Jepsen plans to achieve both goals with a cheap wearable device that her engineers are now tinkering with in the lab. And then there’s the side benefit of reinvigorating the tired consumer electronics industry, which Jepsen thinks is due for the next big thing. 

Jepsen was at SXSW to give a talk about Openwater, her new startup. While the company is still conducting R&D to decide on its first products, Jepsen feels the need to speak out now about what she’s building and how she thinks her technology could radically change society. She wants to give people fair warning and time to think about what’s coming. “I know it seems outlandish to be talking about telepathy, but it’s completely solid physics and mathematical principles—it’s in reach in the next three years,” she says.  

Plus, she’s sick of stealth mode. “I haven’t been able to to talk about what I’ve been doing for five and half years while I was at Google and Facebook, and I don’t think secrecy is useful,” she says. She left Facebook in August, and in September she filed patents for her Openwater technology, which she expects to be issued any day now. 

So what is this miraculous tech? It’s a new type of imaging with resolution as good as that produced by massive and expensive MRI machines, she says, but which can be done with components that fit inside a ski hat or a bandage that wraps around a body part. This imaging could be used to detect tumors, clogged arteries, internal bleeding, blood clots, and a host of neurological disorders. With the right kind of processing, Jepsen says brain imaging can also reveal what a person is thinking. 

A hand with a plastic device clipped onto the forefinger, connected by a wire to a wrist-worn display device.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A pulse oximeter measures oxygen in the blood using infrared light.

Jepsen’s technology uses near-infrared (NIR) light. Infrared passes through the body, as you may know if you’ve been to a hospital and had a pulse oximeter clipped on your finger. The clothespin-like gadget measures the oxygen in your blood based on how much infrared light is absorbed as it passes through. But the depth and resolution of a such a system is severely limited by the intense scattering of NIR light by the flesh and bone.

Jepsen's system measures that scattering holographically, inverts it, and then shines this inverted holographic image back into the body.  The inverted holographic image then uses the scattering of the body itself as a lens, enabling the precise focusing of NIR light deep into the body. Her system lines a hat or bandage with flexible LCDs illuminated by NIR light, as well as the detectors. 

Since the body is in constant motion, the use of LCDs and video holograms is key, Jensen says, but she cut her teeth on that technology. In the late 1980s, when she was an undergrad at MIT, she made the world’s first holographic video system. “It was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had,” she says.  

The LCDs and light-detectors would be cheap to mass produce in Asia’s consumer electronics factories, Jepsen says. She thinks it’s essential to leverage that manufacturing expertise. “The main reason that health care has gotten so much expensive is because the technology has gotten so much more expensive,” she says. Cheap imaging would be particularly beneficial for brain diseases, she says, which are the top expenditure in health care.

An MRI machine in a hospital room.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
MRI machines can cost millions of dollars, and a single scan can cost thousands.

Jepsen imagines her wearable gear being useful for people who have been discharged from the hospital and go home to recover. At-home care has proven benefits, she says, but it also has gaps. “You can send a doctor and nurse to the home, you can do bloodwork at home, but you can’t do the medical imaging at home, because today’s imaging devices are huge,” she says.

By tucking her system into something like a ski hat, it would also allow for continuous monitoring for people with chronic neurological disorders like depression. She imagines doctors being able to monitor patients to see if they’re responding to a medication, or watching them for signs of a suicidal crisis. 

But “the big moonshot is telepathy,” Jepsen says. Here she’s basing her plans on work done by the neuroscientist Jack Gallant at UC Berkeley. His lab uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map blood flow in the brain while a person looks at images or movies, watching the patterns of activity to discover how the brain encodes this information. Then Gallant’s team takes patterns of activity and tries to reconstruct what the person has seen—for example, a face or landscape. His lab has also mapped the regions of the brain that respond to different words. (You can play around with that word map here.)

Image of the brain with various regions showing different colors that are linked to semantic categories like 'social' and 'visual.'

Image: Jack Gallant lab
Neuroscientist Jack Gallant has produced semantic maps of language processing in the brain.

If her NIR imaging system can produce similar resolution in its brain scans, Jepsen says, there’s your cheap wearable telepathy gadget.

She’s certainly excited by the possibilities: “We’re all limited by how fast our mouths can move, how fast our fingers can type. What if you could dump out what you’re thinking directly?” But she’s on a mission to speak out about her project because she’s also trepidatious, and wants a broad societal discussion on how such a technology should be used. “If it’s in a ski hat, can the military make you wear it, can the police make you wear it, can your parents make you wear it?” 

The technology is real and viable, Jepsen says, so it’s time to consider such questions. “We don’t have product prototypes yet,” she says, “but we have the physics prototypes.” Stay tuned.

The Conversation (0)