Wearing Your Digital Universe


If you can’t upload yourself into a computer, how about wrapping yourself up in one? Ever since Dick Tracy put on his two-way radio wristwatch, the public imagination has been waiting for us to wear our electronics. Dt2wrrFictional versions of wearable computing have evolved from the two-way communicator on a wrist to Iron Man’s JARVIS.

The seminal article by Vannevar Bush that inspired and predicted so much of our current digital world also predicted that:

“The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. … As the scientist of the future moves about the laboratory or the field, every time he looks at something worthy of the record, he trips the shutter and in it goes, without even an audible click.”

This prediction was made in 1945.

In 1961 Edward Thorp worked with another of the giants who made our modern world possible, Claude Shannon, to put a computer of sorts into a shoe. Their goal was to cheat at roulette. According to a paper published by Thorp, the two created a device that would calculate the speed and rotation of the spinning ball on a roulette wheel, calculating the likelihood of particular results. They tested the device in Las Vegas, and showed that it did provide results that could increase the winnings of a player over time.

Since that time there have been many cases of wearable computing seemingly on the edge of wide adoption. But it has never gone past that invisible edge.

There have been advocates and evangelists who have created their own wearable computing setups. These include:

Doug Platt, who in 1993 came up with he called the Private Eye. According to this Wired article:

Doug Platt starts most days by fastening’ the snaps of his hip pouch, hanging a few batteries from his belt, and strapping a keyboard around his waist. Last to go on is Platt’s head-mounted “Private Eye”-a white, rectangular box the size of a gherkin that flips over one eye and gives Platt a crisp 25-line by 80-column display in vivid red glowing letters. Platt wears a fixture over his hands that let him input to the computer with three-finger gestures.

Steve Mann is often described as the father of wearable computing. For a period from 1994 through 1996 he was known for “moblogging” which consists of constantly uploading images from your daily life via the wearable computer.

Mann is also noted for possibly being the first person to be assaulted for wearing his computer rig in a public space. A McDonald’s manager in France reportedly ripped the head unit off of Mann in June of 2012.

Another pioneer is Thad Starner, who was involved in a project at MIT and later founded the Contextual Computing Group at Georgia Tech. Starner also designed and built a system to wear full-time. He and his group refer to themselves as cyborgs.

These pioneers demonstrated that someone could wear and use a computer constantly in their daily lives. But they failed to convince the general public that it wanted to.

Land_Warrior_060707The military did toy with the idea, however. The Land Warrior system was designed to connect the individual soldier into a collective information sharing network. The soldier would have access to a ton of information, and the battlefield commanders would have more information about each individual soldier. However, when the system was deployed experimentally in 2009, many soldiers didn’t particularly like it. One soldier reported:

“It’s just a bunch of stuff we don’t use, taking the place of useful stuff like guns,” says Sgt. James Young, who leads a team of four M-240 machine-gunners perched on a balcony during this training exercise at Fort Lewis, Wash. “It makes you a slower, heavier target.”

But wearable computing may be on the brink of large-scale consumer adoption. Two big players have been teasing products for a couple years now that have the potential to change the standard set of devices most people carry. One is Google, with Google Glass. In 2012, Google debuted a set of glasses that also provided an overhead display, along with a camera and the ability access messages and other information via apps. The product created both hype and backlash, with some describing people wearing them as “glass-holes.” The first product was only targeted at developers. The actual retail version is still to come.

The other potential player is Apple, which is rumored to be developing an Apple watch, which most sources are calling the iWatch. Other companies are also looking into watches as computers/internet access, but history suggests that Apple is the company that does the most to truly define a new market. (iPod, iPhone, iPad are the strongest examples).

Already there is large market on wearable sensing devices, from the fitbit to a shirt that tracks your heart. We expect that actual wearable computing is finally at that break-over point that in the past has led to rapid adoption coupled with rapid innovation. Though there is some chance that this will fall apart the way, say, 3-D television did, the potential for spreading outward from various niche adoption points is far greater.

More Information

Dressing in a computer circa 1993 http://simson.net/clips/1993/1993.VillageVoice.Dressed_For_Success.pdf

Controlling your temperature with a computer https://alum.mit.edu/pages/sliceofmit/2013/11/05/wristify-thermal-comfort-via-a-wrist-band/

Google Glass on Google Plus https://plus.google.com/u/0/+GoogleGlass/posts

When will get our Dick Tracy watch? http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1141227

Computer in a shoe http://www.eyetap.org/wearcam/eudaemonic/

Historical overview by one of the people created with creating wearable computers http://wearcam.org/historical/

Or http://wearcam.org/ieeecomputer/r2025.htm

Magazine on wearable devices http://www.wearabledevices.com/

Wearable conference and news http://www.wearable-technologies.com/

The battle over Google Glass http://mashable.com/2014/05/24/google-glass-user-fights-restaurant-ban-with-bad-reviews/

Apps for wearables: Evernote prepares http://mashable.com/2014/05/14/evernote-wearables/

Drumpants. Drumpants. http://www.drumpants.com/

Shannon and Thorp play roulette: http://monet.cs.columbia.edu/courses/mobwear/resources/thorp-iswc98.pdf