Wearable computers

Computers have become so ubiquitous they’re in most of our gadgets and on most of our desks. But guess what? They’re on the verge of becoming even more widespread: soon, we may be wearing them.

The quick definition of a wearable computer is one that is always with you (and always on), is comfortable and easy to keep and use, and is as unobtrusive as clothing. The idea of wearable computers goes back to the 1960s, but early attempts to create them were hampered by the size of the hardware.

One of the pioneers in the field is Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto. Mann is famous in the field of wearable computers because, as he has developed his systems, he has designed them so that the images recorded by the digital cameras he builds into them are continuously uploaded to the World Wide Web–which means anyone in the world can see what he’s seeing. And Mann wears the system all the time, except when he’s sleeping or showering.

According to Mann, wearable computers are quite different from their desktop counterparts in that when you use a desktop computer, computing is the primary task, whereas when you’re wearing a computer, whatever else you’re doing–sitting in a meeting, shaking hands, shopping–is the primary task. The wearable computer’s job is to augment that experience–to help humans do what humans do well (moving around and interacting with people) by doing what computers do well (storing, retrieving and manipulating information).

Mann’s current wearable consists of a heavy-framed pair of eyeglasses (the computer display is projected on the lenses), an ordinary-looking vest worn under his shirt (actually a 64-megabyte computer whose wires and circuitry are woven into the fabric), and an ordinary-looking belt (with tiny push-button micro-switches that serve as his keyboard). It’s a big improvement over his earlier systems, which made him look like a Borg.

When Mann looks through his computer eyeglasses, he doesn’t see the real world, he sees a computer-augmented image of the world. He’s in constant wireless communication with the world beyond his immediate environs; sometimes when he’s talking to someone, for example, he’ll receive an e-mail from someone who has recognized the person from Mann’s Web site.

Thousands of other people and companies around the world are developing their own wearable computers. At MIT they’re playing with such ideas as installing face-recognition software into a wearable computer, which could then tell the wearer the name of someone at, say, a party, or teaching the computer to recognize key words in conversation, and feed the wearer important facts related to those words. They’ve already taught one computer to translate sign language into audible speech..

The possibilities are endless.  Wearable computers could display wiring diagrams for electricians, project X-ray images for surgeons or recognize a patient and display his medical records for an emergency-room physician. They could provide instant access to a law library for lawyers in court, monitor an individual’s vital signs or call police if the wearer is threatened or attacked (and provide a visual record of what the victim of a crime saw). They could even show a pool player the best angle at which to hit the ball or automatically keep score in a card game.

Wearable computers are still in their infancy. Nobody is sure what the best interface will be; a version of Steve Mann’s keyboard-on-a-belt, voice activation, a wrist-watch-like controller, or something activated by the movement of your eyes. (Apparently the movement of the eyes of someone wearing a wearable already makes some people uncomfortable; because the wearer is looking at information all over his display, his eyes tend to flick around in a strange fashion.)

The bigger question is, will people want them? The anti-computer types among us (you know who you are) are probably already horrified by the very idea that soon people will be wearing computers all the time. The computer junkies, meanwhile, are salivating at the notion they can have computing power at their fingertips every second of the day. As for those of us who fall somewhere in the middle…well, we’ll wait and see. But if wearable computers can make us more effective at work, augment our memories, keep us safer on the streets and even make us better pool players, we’ll use them–and soon wonder how we ever did without them.

Just one warning to researchers, though: you’ve got to do something about those ugly eyeglasses, or wearables don’t stand a chance.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1999/01/wearable-computers/

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