Dress Code

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 in orbit.

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 even notice."

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?'"

Augmented Reality

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 random intervals.

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."

Mediated reality

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."

Wearables Central

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?"

Affective computing

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 pupils.

"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 his own.

So much for sex. Now, on to drugs.

The innernet

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 universal impulses.

"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 roll ...

Geek chic

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 skin-deep repackaging."

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.

Shoe power

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 cuff" concerts?

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 forward.


Thomas A. Bass ([email protected]) is a frequent contributor to Wired. His new book, The Predictors, will be published later this year.

Copyright © 1993-98 Wired Magazine Group Inc. All rights reserved. Compilation Copyright © 1994-98 Wired Digital Inc. All rights reserved.


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