Wearables are already bringing us "heads up, hands free"
augmented reality in the workplace. Soon we'll be sporting them
all the time. Did someone say Borg?
By Thomas A. Bass
In 1981, with a computer built into my shoe, I walked into
a Las Vegas casino and beat the house. This was the advent of
the wearables age, when personal computers, barely invented,
were already being shrunk into prosthetic packages capable of
doing useful things - like taking money from a roulette table
and putting it in my pocket.
I was front man for a group of physicists and friends who
lived together in a big house down by the boardwalk in Santa
Cruz, California. Prime movers in our six-year project were Doyne
Farmer and Norman Packard, who went on to help develop chaos
theory, which they are now using to beat another big casino game
- the world financial markets.
Eudaemonic Enterprises was the company they founded to master
roulette, and the gambling proceeds went into the eudaemonic
pie, which was to be sliced and served according to one's investment
in the company - be it time, money, or ideas. (The Eudaemonic
Pie is also the title of a book I wrote about the project.) Eudaemonia
can be defined as "the good life governed according to reason,"
and, at the time, it struck us as perfectly reasonable to spend
six years building computers into our shoes. Beating roulette
was potentially lucrative. It was also glorious, as many smart
people, from Pascal to Einstein, had thought of doing it but
had not succeeded.
The trick was to engineer a system based on physical prediction.
This involved clocking the moving parts of the game - the rotor
with its numbered cups and the ball that spins around it - and
then computing their relative positions, rates of deceleration,
and projected rendezvous with each other. The problem is similar
to landing a spaceship on the Moon, except that all the calculations
have to be done within the few seconds between the launch of
the game and the croupier's call to place your bets.
Computers are good at this sort of thing. On the other hand,
they are not welcome in casinos - especially when they are used
to alter the odds in a gambling game - so we had no choice but
to hide our hardware. We experimented with a variety of concealed
computers and communication devices: bras stuffed with vibrating
solenoids, sacroiliac belts filled with batteries, and underwear
loaded with antennas. The equipment finally got shrunk into a
CMOS 6502 computer-in-a-shoe with toe-mounted microswitches for
input and vibrating solenoids beneath the soles of our feet for
output. Our leather oxfords came complete with battery packs
fit into our heels and just enough antenna wire to operate an
intershoe radio station. This "sole of a new machine"
gave the Eudaemons up to a 44 percent advantage over the casinos:
for every dollar we put on the table, we could expect to pocket
as much as US$1.44 in return.
I was reminded of my first stiff-legged lope down Glitter
Gulch when I received invitations to two events at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology focusing on wearable computers. A conference
hosted by the MIT Media Lab and another sponsored by the Institute
of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society were
being held back-to-back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I was
eager to go. How far, I wondered, have wearables advanced since
I last laced a computer onto my foot? What new applications -
besides breaking the bank in Las Vegas - have people imagined
for this stuff?
Cyborgs on parade
My first glimpse of the cyborgs attending the IEEE conference
is not encouraging. Scattered throughout the crowd on the second
floor of the Cambridge Marriott are what look like a bunch of
telephone linemen kitted out with utility belts, backpacks, handheld
displays, and headmounted antennas, not to mention third eyes
sprouting from their spectacles. The batteries are draped around
their bodies like technological tumors.
Power cords run down their necks, keyboards are strapped to
their wrists, and bundles of color-coded wire sprout from their
pockets. What happened to the concealable computer whose era
I thought the Eudaemons were ushering in nearly two decades ago?
The borgs on parade tend to be long-haired guys with goatees
and ponytails. Several sport crypto T-shirts emblazoned with
barcode and the message "This Shirt is a Munition."
The few women among them look less like Barbarella and more like
prisoners electronically tagged and out on early parole.
A woman with three sensors taped to her forehead unbuttons
her shirt to adjust a monitor strapped across her chest. A tall
blond wears sunglasses with a third eye screwed to the temple;
her gaze sends the subliminal message "Drop dead, mere human,
for I am augmented," but the effect is spoiled by cables
running over her body and a cancerous mass of hardware slung
on her hips.
The typical rig consists of a computer, 486 or faster, stuffed
in a hip holster. Input is from headmounted microphones or handheld
touchpads or keyboards. One of these, called the Twiddler, looks
like a mouse with 18 keys. When chorded, or played in various
combinations, these keys allow a practiced cyborg to type about
60 words a minute. Output is from headmounted LED displays: miniature
computer screens suspended from metal halos or hat brims or screwed
into eyeglass frames. The standard model is Reflection Technology's
Private Eye, a 1-ounce display that uses a scanning mirror and
a row of LEDs to project onto a small screen what looks to the
wearer like a 15-inch computer monitor. One adventuresome borg,
who prefers to get his output through a miniature cathode-ray
tube, is packing 6,000 volts on his head. To this basic rig one
can add headphones, cameras, modems, body sensors, positioning
devices, and whatever other gear the human burro can bear.
"These cyborgs are one early test take on smart clothes,
although in this first stage they are more like walking Unix
systems with cameras and wireless links," says Media Lab
professor Michael Hawley, somewhat apologetically.
What, I ask myself, is going on here? Nearly 20 years after
we shrank computers into our shoes, the best engineers in the
world are walking around with wearables that make them look like
Christmas trees in Times Square? Then it strikes me that the
cyborgs around me are wired to the Web. While I sit through a
lecture, they are reading and answering their email. Simultaneously,
they are taking notes on the lecture and storing them - cross-referenced,
highlighted, and indexed - in a databank that holds all the other
lectures on wearables they have ever heard. Some of the techies
are experimenting with transforming their computers into a second
brain, a truly smart machine that will know automatically when
to record interesting parts of the lecture - or when to prompt
the wearer with notes or recognize faces or steer them through
a strange city with annotated maps and literary sound bites overlaid
on the world around them. When they walk past the opera house
in Vienna, for example, up comes a Strauss waltz and a Post-it
note advising them of ticket availability for that night's performance.
I am suddenly struck by another thought. The geeks in full
rig are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Among the 400
people around me, how many are packing computers I can't see?
Batman Does Java
On the Marriott escalator, I bump into Benjamin Stoltz. Stoltz
is a huge mountain of a man who works in the crypto department
at Sun Microsystems. I notice the word Java embossed in capital
letters on Stoltz's big silver pinky ring, and when I ask him
about it, he tells me the ring is the mock-up for a Diffie-Hellman
key-encrypted computer with an 8051 microcontroller and enough
pseudo-Java code to write your own programs. Java - the real
thing - is coming this spring. "Wouldn't you know it,"
I think to myself. "Batman does Java!"
The ring, made by Dallas Semiconductor, is called the iButton.
The i stands for information, and the company gives you gobs
of it - in the form of computer chips encased in gold class rings,
sewn into electronic wallets, or dangled from key chains. Dallas
Semiconductor's super decoder ring is designed for putting Batman
in private conversation with Robin, and its cryptographic ring
is built for road warriors who want to conduct mission-critical
work while floating in the middle of the Beverly Hills Hotel
swimming pool. This "jewelry for the information age,"
as the company's Web site explains, is designed for "swooping
down from the world of science fiction onto your information-hungry
hand," according to a product review.
"So what can you do with this thing?" I ask Stoltz
about his pinky ring. "Whatever you do with a computer,"
he explains. It holds the keys that unlock encrypted Internet
messages. It contains a microprocessor, a math accelerator, a
clock, and memory.
It opens the office door and stores emoney. "You have
to keep your secrets somewhere," he says, "and this
seems as good a place as any."
His crypto ring is chunky enough to double as a personal-defense
device - if he decked you with it, he'd lay you out cold - so
I hope I'm not insulting Stoltz when I ask him, "How many
computers are you packing?"
When dumped onto a nearby table, his personal inventory of
central processing units includes a Java smartcard, a PalmPilot
electronic notepad, a Metricom modem for wireless Web browsing,
a cell phone, a two-way pager, his ring, and a mess of iButtons
dangling from his key chain. Stoltz is packing in his pocket
more computer power than NASA employed to put its first satellite
I tell Stoltz about my initial reaction to the cyborgs around
us. "Why is the gear so big and awkward?" I ask.
"The bulk goes away," he says. "Today they
look like geeks. Tomorrow they'll be among us. They'll be wearing
eyeglasses with computer monitors built into them that you won't
Stoltz leads me through a thought experiment. "All you
need is a little bit of power and an LCD to get data off any
one of these processors," he says, poking at the appliances
piled in front of him. "In the future any number of these
devices will be capable of powering and remembering the functions
of all the others. You'll have a Java virtual machine installed
in all your personal electronics devices."
"Soon I'll be carrying my video camera, which will do
my computer processing and run my remembrance agent," he
continues. "Then I'll leave the camera at home and take
out a PalmPilot running the same programs off the Net. The next
day, I want to be a geek; I put on a Private Eye that I'm running
off my cell phone. As my need for bandwidth varies, I should
be able to put on the appropriate geek accessory for whatever
I'm doing at the moment."
Stoltz agrees with me that one thing hasn't changed since
the days when I loped through Caesars Palace. "It's the
same as it was for you guys back in Las Vegas," he says.
"The biggest problem today is the batteries, cables, connectors
- all the stuff you need to keep your system powered up and connected."
Over the past few years, the wearables scene has grown from
small conferences at Boeing and Federal Express to this international
symposium, which has attracted twice as many participants as
the organizers expected. "The biggest thing I'm taking away
from this conference is the fact that this stuff isn't just for
geeks anymore," Stoltz says. "Wearable computers are
being used on the assembly line at Boeing. They're presenting
information in the workspace. They're augmenting reality.
"You shouldn't underestimate the power of these gadgets,"
he adds. "Their potential applications in transportation
and maintenance are huge. Just this morning I learned about a
chicken packer who uses wearables to track his inventory so that
he doesn't get blood on the paperwork. The reality coefficient
is getting high enough that I could tell my mom about this stuff
and she'd say, 'Oh, that's nice, dear,' instead of, 'What are
you talking about?'"
I decide to strap on a computer and start packing heat, as
they have taken to saying in the wearables world. The second
floor of the Marriott is filled with manufacturers selling headmounted
displays, fanny-pack computers, and other nifty gear, like a
forehead sensor that operates my computer at the blink of an
eye. When it comes to packing heat, the hottest thing on the
floor - literally - is a Xybernaut belt-mounted computer, which
turns my midriff into a Pentium processor and, incidentally,
acts as a heating pad. The model on display has been specially
configured for the US Customs Service. The $8,000 package includes
voice-recognition software, a full-color monitor mounted in front
of my eye, and enough memory to hold every license-plate number
in the nation. A couple of these babies are now strapped to Customs
officers strolling the Mexican border, looking for stolen cars.
Also on display at the Marriott is one of the rigs built for
the wire shop at Boeing (see "Wiring the Jet Set,"
Wired 5.10, page 128). When you're under the hood of a 747, stripping
down the exhaust manifold, the last thing you want to do is climb
out and consult the manual. What if the manual could pop into
your headmounted display? And what if this eyepiece were transparent,
allowing you to overlay a wiring diagram on top of the task in
front of you? Add a positioning-and-orienting device to track
the movement of your head and, everywhere you look, the appropriate
schematics will zoom into view.
This ability to annotate the space around you - to superimpose
pictures, graffiti, music, and other kinds of remembrance agents
on top of it - is called augmented reality, and AR is a big deal
in wearables. Every process in the manufactured world that relies
on assembling things - and every repair that involves disassembling
things - is ripe for augmentation. Assembly-line workers and
telephone-line technicians should hold onto their hard hats,
because very soon these hats are going to be outfitted with motion
trackers and positioning devices. "Heads up, hands free"
is the mantra for the workers of the world, who are about to
wear their blueprints and repair manuals on their heads.
Next to the Boeing gear is a table full of head trackers straight
out of Star Trek. Brought to us by the US Air Force's Human Engineering
Division, these include a brain-activated computer-control device
triggered by reading my brain waves. To experience how the gear
works, I strap another system, which looks like a high tech version
of Christ's crown of thorns, onto my forehead. It's loaded with
electrodes for monitoring my electromyogram signals - the record
of the electrical activity in my muscles (in this case, resulting
from facial gestures) - and turning them into computer commands.
This process is comparable to using a lie-detector test to drive
your car: Every time you tell the truth, you turn right. Every
time you lie, you go left.
For more accurate readings, I can add an extra array of scalp
electrodes to a head tracker. The super-deluxe model measures
32 channels of electroencephalographic activity to produce a
topographic map of my brain in the process of being a brain -
that is, thinking. These channels can be programmed to an output
device that steers my jet or dials the help line at my local
control tower. Basically, every move I make, whether blinking,
speaking, smiling, or gesturing, can be tracked by electrodes
or sensors and then interpreted as a command.
Standing next to me as I boot up my forehead is LeeAnn Voisinet,
a cheery woman who works on the Wireless Augmented Reality Prototype
(WARP) project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
California. WARP is basically a Look-Ma-no-hands-I'm-traveling-at-17,000-mph
headset and belt pack that will someday be worn by astronauts,
among others, and will include cameras, a data display, stereo
audio, microphones, and whatever else one may need while zipping
around Earth every 90 minutes.
Voisinet is a professional shopper in the wearables world
and an expert at sorting vaporware from ready-to-wear. "A
year ago, if you were shopping for a wearable computer, you built
your own or bought one of two commercial models, which were expensive
and had to be heavily modified if you wanted them to do anything
useful," she says. "Now the handmade stuff is being
replaced by commercial products in shrink-wrap. This is still
a small community, but it's on the verge of exploding, especially
in the industrial areas."
The big hit of the wearables show - judging from the number
of people who say that they covet a pair - are MicroOptical's
LCD eyeglasses, which contain a concealed electronic display
in their frame. When you put them on, a beam of light shoots
alongside the temple through the lens and then back into your
eye, which perceives the reflected and folded light ray as a
computer screen floating 3 feet in front of your face. Since
the lens reflector is transparent and not much bigger than a
raindrop, and because the display is mounted into an otherwise
normal pair of eyeglasses, the borgs will now be among us, augmented
but undetectable, save for the little chuckles they emit at seemingly
Then there's ViA Inc.'s bendable motherboard, which resembles
a large belt. "Batman would feel right at home wearing one
of these," Microsoft chair Bill Gates said when he previewed
it. The rig I strap on for a test drive is designed for NATO
troops parachuting into Bosnia. Along with a 586 PCMCIA-card-based
computer worn like a pair of six-shooters, the outfit includes
a full-color touchscreen display, headphones, a microphone, and
software for translating English into Croatian, French, Russian,
or any other language that might prove useful in a war zone.
All I need is a loudspeaker to turn myself into a fully fluent
Tower of Babel. Later this year, when the system is capable of
translating Croatian into English, I'll be able to strap the
entire United Nations support staff onto my hip for about $5,000.
Voice-activated machines are a lot smarter than they used
to be, and it takes relatively little time to get this computer
to whisper in my ear the Croatian translations for "Destroy
booby traps," "Deploy mine sweeper," "Hands
up," and "Freeze!" On the other hand, the computer
isn't programmed to recognize other English phrases.
For "I love you," it says, "I do not know."
For "You are beautiful," it says, "Put the pieces
together and tighten them."
The wearables community is divided into people designing computers
as uniforms - corporate-issue, task-specific devices - and designers
creating wearables as clothing; you know, the stuff we get to
have fun with. The multilingual computer knows only the facts
that someone has taught it. So who is going to teach our machines
something different? Who is going to get them to loosen up and
laugh a little?
Searching for a counterpoint to the military-industrial complex,
I buttonhole Steve Mann. Mann - the guy with the antenna sprouting
out of his hat and a 6,000-volt cathode-ray tube plugged into
his face - is, with fellow cyborg Thad Starner, the person responsible
for starting the wearables craze at the Media Lab. When Mann
arrived at MIT in 1991 wearing CRTs on his head and carrying
enough bandwidth to function as a mobile broadcasting studio,
he was tolerated as a bit of a kook. But now that a dozen mini-Manns
are walking around Cambridge and Mann is a professor at the University
of Toronto, he looks like a visionary kook.
A Canadian with degrees in physics and electrical engineering,
Mann had already been playing around with wearables for more
than a decade before he enrolled as a graduate student at the
Media Lab. His first design, the Photographer's Assistant, allowed
him to blur the boundaries between photography, painting, and
computer graphics. These early experiments evolved into headmounted
and backpack rigs loaded with computers, cameras, video goggles,
radio antennas, microwave transmitters, and UHF receivers. Mann
recently used one of these outfits to turn himself into a mobile
Web site whose progress could be followed in real time as he
walked around Cambridge.
Among his other accomplishments, Mann is a performance artist
who makes documentaries about how people respond to video surveillance.
One of these films, called ShootingBack, explores what happens
when one walks into a store carrying a surveillance camera. The
business has surveillance cameras pointed at you, but strange
things happen when you try to turn the technology around.
I experience this phenomenon by donning one of Mann's rigs.
The 5-pound binocular behemoth, straight out of Jules Verne and
designed for filming in stores and other public spaces that are
under video surveillance, has printed across the front of it
the following notice: "For the protection of you and your
department store, an audio and video record of this interaction
is being transmitted to and recorded at remote locations. I report
and prosecute all violations of fire, safety, misleading advertising,
and unsafe or unethical business practices."
When I walk into the MIT bookstore wearing this thing on my
head, clerks and clients scatter in front of me like chickens
fleeing from an 18-wheeler. They throw their hands over their
faces and duck behind countertops. I am convinced the store dicks
will be on top of me in a flash until a clerk in the CD department,
following my gaze up toward the ceiling, which is dotted with
surveillance cameras, explains, "Honey, those things haven't
worked for years."
Mann, a master of technological strangeness, has for two decades
experimented with what it means to live in a world where everything
can be viewed through a lens. The images - obtained by one or
more cameras mounted atop his head and processed through a computer
that transforms them in various ways - can be sped up or slowed
down or flipped 90 degrees to create a sideways world that, for
a long time, Mann preferred to walk through.
Besides simply overlaying material on top of the real world,
this experience, which he calls mediated reality, also allows
the visual perception of reality to be diminished or otherwise
altered. For example, Mann slows down images, which allows him
to observe things that are normally unseeable, such as lettering
on spinning automobile tires or the turning blades of an airplane
propeller. He predicts that the "intelligent" eyeglasses
of the future will allow us to change our sampling rate at will.
Mann calls his work personal imaging, or online living, or
computer-mediated reality. Lately, in honor of Doyne Farmer and
Norman Packard, he has begun talking about eudaemonic computers:
user-controlled, free-roaming, ever-ready devices no more obtrusive
than the rest of our clothing. "A eudaemonic computer fits
in the prosthetic territory," he says.
This visionary has a long list of things he wants to do with
eudaemonic computers. Communities of cyborgs could share their
visual fields - or tune in to the same field, for that matter.
Asking someone to consider your viewpoint will take on new meaning.
Networked communities of cyborgs could counter the proliferation
of government surveillance cameras with their own personal safety
nets. "This technology, if you give it a sinister twist,
could bring totalitarian control beyond anything Orwell imagined,"
says Mann. "I want smart clothing - owned, operated, and
controlled by individual wearers."
Thad Starner is cofounder of MIT's Wearable Computing Project
and Mann's sidekick in online living. While Mann challenges us
to think about how we use our technology, Starner cobbles together
systems and applications at a prodigious rate. "Welcome
to Wearable Central," he says, ushering me into his Media
Lab office, which is chock-a-block with soldering guns and boxes
full of computer parts. Many of the Media Lab's dozen active
cyborgs are outfitted with computer systems designed by Starner,
whose basic model he calls the Lizzy.
Starner's sorrel ponytail hides a wire running down his neck,
and his new MicroOptical eyeglasses, with monitor and mirrors
hidden in the frame, mask the fact that he is tuned into a remembrance
agent. "I have a speech impediment," he apologizes,
stuttering slightly. "During lectures and demos, I talk
more coherently when a computer is prompting me."
By adding a small camera to his outfit, Starner can also run
a face-recognition program. The uncertainty that comes from seeing
a face you recognize but can't quite place is transformed into
an image that comes complete with name tag and annotated notes
on your last conversation. "While sitting here talking to
you, I could gather online information telling me when you got
married, how much you paid for your house, your credit card history,
and your medical record," says Starner, who frowns on this
kind of "social hacking." But because he knows how
to do it, he is hypersensitive about designing tamper-proof systems.
"I can be a real crypto nut," he says. "The whole
purpose of a wearable computer is that you control it, not the
environment. I want to make technology that inherently protects
the user. You have the right to your own bits."
In addition to augmented memory, Starner also works to develop
systems that overlay the virtual on top of the real. By scattering
infrared beacons around the Media Lab - inexpensive little I/O
devices powered by sunlight or lightbulbs - the borgs have created
a messaging system that allows them to create virtual Post-it
notes that pop into their monitors as they enter a room. A flowerpot,
for example, will sprout a cartoon bubble saying, "Water
me!" Starner, working with Josh Weaver and their faculty
adviser, Alex Pentland, has built another system that uses a
camera mounted on the brim of a baseball cap to help translate
the hand signals of American Sign Language into spoken English.
When his grandmother began to lose her eyesight three years ago,
Starner outfitted her with a computer system that magnifies or
intensifies images, allowing her to read again. This is a spin
on another, more sophisticated system Starner and Mann had built
to map around blind spots using software they call the "visual
filter." This technique pushes images from the center of
one's visual field to the periphery, or vice versa, depending
on the eye impairment in need of fixing.
"In 1989, when I first started working on this stuff,
people looked at me like I was a nut case," says Starner.
"Then, when I got the first prototypes working, they still
thought I was nuts, but they understood why I was doing it. Now
everyone says, 'Oh, of course it's going to happen.' The only
questions are, When is it going to happen, and who is going to
make the most money out of it?"
Among the cyborgs married to their machines as they walk around
Cambridge is Jennifer Healey, who wears electrodes attached to
her body, including three placed on her upper cheek: this electromyogram
knows from the movement of her face muscles when she is smiling
or frowning or clenching her jaw in anger. Two rings on her fingers
measure her galvanic skin response, and a third device measures
heart rate. A belt around her chest monitors her respiration.
Healey is one of a handful of graduate students at the Media
Lab working with associate professor Rosalind Picard, who has
just published a book called Affective Computing.
As Healey and I stand next to each other in a quiet corner
at the Marriott, I can see from the signals recorded on her PalmPilot
computer that this young woman is highly aroused. Her heart rate
is spiking. Her blood-pressure volume is showing the classic
fight-or-flight reaction. Her skin is conducting like crazy -
in other words, she is sweating.
"What's going on?" I ask, looking into her dilated
"This is terror," she says, pointing to the spikes
in her output. "I'm the next speaker, and I'm supposed to
be on stage right now."
Healey's project at the Media Lab is to build an affective
computer, a mechanism that reads your moods and emotions and
can respond to them in appropriate ways. "Your friends can
tell whether you're upset or pleased," says Healey. "Why
can't your computer?"
The first affective computer she built is a digital jukebox
that plays what Healey calls "mood music for my life."
Sensors reading changes in her biometric signals automatically
arrange to have her serenaded with the appropriate music. In
the morning, when she is feeling mellow, up comes "Scarborough
Fair." As she starts getting into the day's work - more
"aroused," as they say in the world of affective computing
- The Smiths begin playing "Please Please Please Let Me
Get What I Want." Then, when Healey is pumped, really cruising
full speed ahead, the mood music for her life is Smashing Pumpkins
and 10,000 Maniacs. "I use the music to ramp up and stay
there," she says. "Then, when I top out and my skin
conductivity goes down, I want the music to follow my mood. But,
hey, if you want the opposite - Mozart at the top and heavy metal
when you're least aroused - that's your choice. It's your wearable.
You're the boss."
Beauty and the bits
Intimate relations between humans and new technology is the
theme of the big Media Lab event that follows the IEEE conference.
Once the serious lectures are out of the way, people's thoughts
turn to fantasy. Assuming that computers get shrunk to bite-sized
eudaemonic proportions and slipped on with our clothes, what
will we do with these things? Will they be fun to live with?
Will they transform the important stuff in life - like sex, drugs,
and rock and roll?
The Media Lab is a $25 million-a-year, 350-person think tank
run, as his day job, by Wired senior columnist Nicholas Negroponte.
It hosts an annual conference cum birthday party, and this year's
invitation list includes about 1,400 executives, academics, and
technological leaders from Nike, Sun, Microsoft, Motorola, and
other blue-chip Media Lab sponsors. We are gathered in MIT's
Kresge Auditorium for a full day of lectures and panel discussions
before moving over to the Media Lab's high tech headquarters
for a fashion show called "Beauty and the Bits," which
features 44 models parading the wearables look for the future.
The emcee for the day's events is Leonard Nimoy. Why Mr. Spock?
It's simple. The perfectly rational being who complemented the
subjective, intuitive Captain Kirk is the nerd's hero. Always
computing the odds on the starship Enterprise's missions, Spock
is himself a walking computer, and he loves high tech gadgets.
Nimoy provides comic relief throughout the course of the day,
and at one point he even helps demonstrate what a wearable-enhanced
sexual encounter might look like. A sexy dancer in black appears
on stage wearing a $500,000 Harry Winston brooch attached to
her dress. The diamond-and-ruby brooch, called the Heartthrob,
glows with every beat of the dancer's heart. Thanks to the addition
of some wireless broadcast capacity, her heart rate is projected
onto a big screen. So, too, is the heart rate of Mr. Spock, who,
when asked to kiss the dancer, suffers a little heartthrob of
So much for sex. Now, on to drugs.
One of the conference speakers is Kazuhiko "Kay"
Nishi. "He is the Bill Gates of Japan," says Negroponte,
introducing the founder and president of ASCII Corporation. It
should also be noted that Nishi is footing the bill for most
of the day's events. He has built an $700 million software company
out of getting computers to talk to each other in bit strings
known as the American Standard Code for Information Interchange,
but that's ancient history, says Nishi. The future belongs to
getting computers to talk to humans through brain waves and other
"I expect we'll have computers in every pocket by the
year 2000," he says. The millions of kids already carrying
Tamagotchis and other virtual pets seem to have beat him to the
punch, but Nishi has something else in mind. He envisions nanocomputers,
or "nannies," that will be worn on our skin and will,
he says, "interpret brain waves and take care of our lives."
Their tasks will include measuring changes in our blood pH values,
monitoring heart disease, and warning us not to nibble on those
extra calories. This is a vision of the computer as scold, nannying
us through the networked connections in our lives. According
to Nishi, these connections will soon be moving from the Internet
to the intranet and down from there to what he calls the innernet.
Interval Research's Andrew Singer has already patented a programmable
tattoo, an implanted computer chip with readout visible through
the skin. As freaky as something like this might sound, imagine
how useful it could be for someone wanting to control blood-sugar
levels or hormones or to monitor ovulation.
Another big arena for wearables is electrophoresis, in which
molecules move when pulsed with an electric charge. Think Band-Aids
with microprocessors that deliver medication. In the brave new
world of Web-based medicine, nurses will work through nodes,
checking patient data online. Alice Pentland, chair of the Department
of Dermatology at New York's University of Rochester and sister
of Media Lab professor Alex Pentland, says, "All the patient
monitoring that now takes place in hospitals, with people wired
into machines, will soon move to body sensors that can be worn
around the house on a wristwatch. This is less threatening. It
puts the patient more in control and gives us a lot more data
than we have now."
"Medicine will be the great driver for wearables research
over the next few years," says Media Lab professor Michael
Hawley. "Soon we'll have shoes that know more about you
than your doctor does."
To demonstrate the inward migration of wearable computers,
the audience at the Media Lab is treated to a lecture by John
Wyatt, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. Through
The Retinal Implant Project, Wyatt wants to aid the millions
of people every year who go blind from degeneration of the retinal
receptors. In this condition, the connections from the brain
to the retina are functional but the retina itself no longer
processes signals from the outside world. Wyatt is trying to
rectify this problem by figuring out how to attach surgically
a microelectronic prosthesis to the inner surface of the eye
to help restore vision. While a clinical device is years away,
the first experiment on a person will take place later this year.
Carry this research far enough and one enters the world of
Manfred Clynes, the musician turned scientist who, with colleague
Nathan Kline, coined the word cyborg in 1960 when they were speculating
about the creation of a cybernetic organism. When fitted with
artificial organs, drug drips, and other control mechanisms useful
for satisfying his "erotic requirements," this cyborg,
or "augmented man," would be ready for space travel.
Humans went into space with less augmentation than Clynes recommended,
but that didn't stop him from speculating about a still-braver
new world in which, he says, "computers and molecular biology
will intermarry; they already have flirted with each other quite
strongly." The offspring from this marriage will be "computer-designed
molecules" that "work inside the brain and will be
able to change the emotional aspects," Clynes says.
Attending the Media Lab event are a handful of borgs who would
love to hop into a faster-than-light space transport and drive
straight into the Clynesian future. They drift around the edge
of the party, wearing Japanese laptops strapped to their chests
and homemade keypads attached to their wrists. When I try to
chat with them, the conversation keeps slipping into well-worn
grooves. They tell me they are Extropians, like Hans Moravec
and Timothy Leary, who are getting ready to upload their psyches,
jettison our exhausted planet, and blast off for the intergalactic
frontier. They combine Buck Rogers naïveté with a
wide streak of paranoia. They are hungry for prosthetics and
yearning for time travel. They shadow the party like doppelgängers,
reminding us that this technology has its dark side. But no one
at the symposium cares to look under this particular rock or
pay them much heed.
Let's see, we have done sex and drugs. That leaves rock and
The day ends with the Media Lab's transformation into a geek
fashion show, with models parading the hot new looks for the
third millennium. The cyber ensembles, some that actually work,
others fanciful, were created by students at design schools in
New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Milan - and at the Media Lab. Michael
Hawley, in his email invitation to me, wrote that the fashion
show is designed to address the following research agenda: "What
will it mean for you to be on the Net, a walking, breathing,
living node? How will clothes and accessories change when your
body becomes the bus? Will your cuff links really link? When
you get a phone call, will your earrings ring? What more will
you watch on your wristwatch? Will mascara be digitally adjustable?
What happens when putting on your Nikes is tantamount to taking
a physical exam? When your clothes know more about you every
day than your doctor knows once in a blue moon? Will your Victoria's
Secret someday kiss and tell? Will the digital layer that comes
between you and your Calvins leak out bits? Will telnet pocket.trousers.negroponte.mit.edu
become a serious problem? Will your jewelry and clothing come
to know you so well that they can sense your mood, your feelings?
Will you literally wear your heart on your sleeve?
"Computers are ugly," Hawley concluded. "People,
by and large, hate hardware and software; it is bought and used
out of basic needs, not passions. But clothes must be well designed.
They have to be comfortable, intimate, functional, appealing.
When computing becomes as basic as Jockey shorts, as sexy as
lingerie, as cute as a Swatch, as durable as denim, as porous
as Gore-Tex, as absorbent as Pampers, as fleet-footed as Nikes
... and when all of the energy and thrill of the Internet is
bubbling through your seams and pockets - when high tech and
high fashion collide - the result will be a big change, not just
Geek chic has come a long way from the days when MIT was famous
for the pocket protector. Out on the runway comes a woman in
a green miniskirt with electric field sensors woven into the
fabric. Accompanying her is a man wearing a MIDI synthesizer
sewn into his jacket. As the couple dance around each other,
their clothing becomes two instruments that play in response
to their movements. No longer do you need to carry a walkman
when you can become a walkman.
Down the catwalk comes a blind man whose vision suit, featuring
vibrating sonar grommets in his clothing and shoes, help guide
him across the stage. Next, a child's cyber safety suit comes
complete with a homing device and a wrist microphone for transmitting
messages. Then there are mock-ups of empathic fabric that will
change shape with your moods, material that will automatically
adjust to your body temperature, and personal cooling systems
that will react to stress. Many of the models walking down the
runway sport GPS sensors, datagloves, and third eyes, and one
designer even envisions a belly-button tattoo that doubles as
a medical sensor, automatically administering immunization dosages
as you travel around the world.
The first wearable computer was the wristwatch created by
Cartier in 1904. Or was it the pocket watch, invented in the
1700s, or eyeglasses, first mentioned in 1268? Maybe the first
wearable was the human immune system, with its uncanny ability
to distinguish friend from foe, or human sexual organs, with
their remarkable I/O devices. Whatever it was, all of human evolution
is geared toward enhancement. "I am cyborg," says historian
of consciousness Donna Haraway. "Technology is not neutral.
We're inside of what we make, and it's inside of us." We
may dismiss it as sci-fi fantasy or a spooky pipe dream, but
wearables are here. Wearables are us.
As I wander from the fashion show into a Media Lab office,
I am amused to find a humble item lying on a workbench. It is
a shoe, its tongue flopping out, its sole removed. The hollowed-out
heel shows all the telltale signs of having been tampered with
for eudaemonic purposes.
A student explains that, yes, the shoe is being loaded with
a computer and a power source. But the game I played long ago
in Las Vegas now has some neat twists. The shoe is being designed
as part of a personal-area network that turns the body into a
"wet wire" for transmitting data. Several milliwatts
of power are all that is required, for example, for two people
to exchange business cards virtually by shaking hands and downloading
data through their fingertips.
But this particular shoe, instead of merely holding the power
required to run the system, will generate it. This small miracle
is accomplished by loading the shoe with flexible film sensors.
No bigger than scraps of aluminum foil, these piezoelectric polymers
generate current by being flexed back and forth, which is accomplished
by walking on top of them.
By strolling around the block, I can turn my shoe into a power
plant. From Dick Tracy watches with videophone transmitters to
self-powered smart shoes, the brave new world of wearables is
upon us. So what do you want to do with this power? Break the
bank in Las Vegas? Build sympathetic computers? Restore your
vision? Speak Croatian like a diplomat? Perform "off the
Now that we can dress in clothes that automatically link us
to the Internet, an intranet, our innernet, or any other network
we want, the big question is: Which connections are worth making?
Personally, I prefer clothing over uniforms. I have a fondness
for risk, serendipity, and the novel. I relish enhancement. So
I'll be marching into this brave new world with my best foot
Thomas A. Bass ([email protected]) is a frequent contributor
to Wired. His new book, The Predictors, will be published later
Copyright © 1993-98 Wired Magazine Group Inc. All rights
reserved. Compilation Copyright © 1994-98 Wired Digital
Inc. All rights reserved.
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