Monday, July 23, 2001

Half Mann, Half Computer

(Syndicated article for the Metro newspaper group).

Steve Mann in his lab at Toronto U 2001.

Steve Mann has been wearing his computer for decades. He even wore it on his wedding day, recording the ceremony literally from the groom’s point of view, with the help of a tiny, head-mounted camera. “I have created this machine…or kind of myself as a machine,” says the eccentric professor.

Professor Mann’s students at the engineering school at Toronto University call themselves “Photoborgs,” (derived from the “Borgs” of Star Trek fame whose computers were permanently implanted into their bodies.) But alas, Mann’s wearable computers are taken off sometimes - before showering or going to bed, for example. “It feels funny not having it on,” says aspiring Photoborg, and research student, James Fung,

Mann’s wearable computer is worn as a pair of glasses and is connected to a processor in the form of a “fanny pack” - or attached to an item of clothing. It takes commands by voice, or via a handheld input-device, and displays information either on tiny screens inside the eyewear, or projects it directly into the user’s retina.

It may sound impractical, but many companies are already using wearable computers, especially for their blue collar and service employees. Costing between US$3,000 and $6,000, these small and powerful computers are expensive, but there are many situations where donning a hands-free, mobile, and wearable computer could be money well spent.

Take, for example, the airplane mechanic who is working in a tight space and needs to check something in a manual. A laptop computer would be hard to juggle next to a jet engine, and besides, it would delay the repair. The same thing goes for the surgeon performing a complex operation. Here a wearable computer could display critical data -- like MRI images -- right in front of the doctor’s eyes, so that she can continue without having to put down the scalpel.

Using Mann’s experimental ENGware system (read: Electronic News Gathering Wearable) a journalist could draw on his news organization’s resources while out on the field. His editors could instantly send information about related people, events, and places directly into his view.

Mann built his first wearable system three years after Apple launched it’s personal computer -- the Apple II -- and the same year as IBM came out with its first PC.
“Many people consider what I built in 1981 to be the first true wearable computer,” Mann says.

Using a cathode ray tube from a camera viewfinder, and a small TV tube, he created a “personal viewing system” that was hands-free, and had a display that could be viewed while walking around. “It also used wireless communications,” he adds.

Since then, he has more or less lived each day with various models of the contraption, something he has written about in a new book, soon to be published by Random House. “The whole idea of attaching a computer to the body is really strange. When I did this, people thought it was totally crazy,” he explained during an interview in his lab.

On July 5th, he and the student Photoborgs celebrated the opening of an art exhibit dedicated to his wearable computers at one of downtown Toronto’s trendy art galleries, TPW. The fact that he exhibits his inventions as artwork, is only logical to Steve Mann. His first wearable was inspired by a desire to see the world in a new light. These high-tech “rose-colored glasses” that could change the color of selected objects in his view. “I was interested in seeing things differently - in getting different interpretations of the world,” he says.

Looking into Mann’s eyes, it seems as if a camera lens has taken the place of his right pupil, and he talks as if it actually has. (It’s only an optical illusion.) The camera in his “EyeTap” system sits close to his nose, capturing the images in front of him. These images are then sent to an on-body computer, where it can be modified, added to, or subtracted from, before a final “virtual” picture is projected into his eye. He refers to this as a “mediated reality.”

The capability to delete objects that we see everyday can be useful if, for example, advertisements are perceived as an eyesore. In the future, a wearable computer can be programmed to replace the “Marlboro Man” on the billboard with something more to one’s liking – be it Mona Lisa, or Claudia Schiffer.

“Your view is already muddled with all these billboards blocking your view as you walk down the street,” says Mann. “You can’t see the truth because it’s obscured by all these lies. By putting on the glasses you can see your own reality,” he adds.

The same principle for “mediated reality” that lies behind Mann’s EyeTap can be found in his “EarTap” system, which works in a similar fashion, but using sound instead of light. Another related invention is “Blind Vision,” the idea of which is to help blind people navigate by using radar, and a vibrating “VibraVest.” As the radar senses nearby objects, it sends “warning” vibrations to the wearer of the vest.
Mann claims that the radar can even detect if a pickpocket is approaching, by evaluating the speed and pattern of movement.

Few people understood this Canadian prodigy back in high school. He stripped camcorders for parts to include in weird looking hockey helmets with antennas, and had dozens of wires coming out of his eyeglasses, only to disappear under his jacket behind his neck.

He attended Toronto’s McGregor University, but later transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But even MIT’s nerd-laden Media Lab found it hard to accept Mann, who couldn’t part with his wearables, not even for a day. “I was the first person to broadcast my life (from a wearable computer) on the Web in 1994,” he says.

Eventually the idea caught on. He co-founded the Wearable Group at the Lab and his inventions became something of a showpiece. Late in 1997, the Media Lab held a glitzy fashion show with professional models - using sexy, but non-working mock-up wearables.

In 1999, he parted ways with the Media Lab and returned to Toronto, where he now runs the show. The Media Lab continues its wearable program, and the Lab’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, has recognized him as a “pioneer” in his field.

While the computer industry is fast commercializing the wearable technology, it is not quite clear where Steve Mann is heading. He recently started a company called Existech that designs wearable computers, but it is run by volunteers, and is rooted as much in existentialism as it is in technology.

While there are many commercial niches for wearables, Steve Mann sees his invention as a general, all-purpose tool - much like the PC itself. He sometimes uses it to do mundane chores like grocery shopping. It works like this: As Steve walks down supermarket aisles, his wife Betty Lo logs-on to her husband’s wearable, sees what he sees through his eyeglass-camera, and with her mouse, shows him on his mini-display, which brand of cereal she wants him to pick-up.

Hans Sandberg

“For your own protection”

Living with a wearable computer opens-up a range of questions, from the practical to the political - and even philosophical. What happens to privacy if we are always accessible and “connected”? What happens to individual experience if other people can see and hear what we see and hear?

Early in his career, Steve Mann focused on the practical and moral implications of strapping a computer to one’s body. His conclusion: the wearable computer is a defense weapon against a society that seeks ever more control and surveillance.

Mann loves to show video recordings of himself walking into department stores and asking cashiers or security guards about the cameras hidden behind domes in the ceiling. When they answer that it is for the customer’s safety, he pulls out his own video camera -- or points his wearable at them -- and informs them that he is monitoring them to, for safety’s sake of course.

“For your protection a video recording of you and your establishment may be transmitted and recorded at remote locations,” reads one of Mann’s T-shirts displayed at a recent art exhibition at the TPW gallery in Toronto.

“We already have smart floors, smart ceilings, smart toilets, and smart light switches. We have all this artificial intelligence (AI) around us,” says Mann, pointing to “humanistic intelligence” (HI) as a “counterpoint.”

He wants to empower individuals by adding computer power “to go,” and by connecting them wirelessly, so that they can share information and experiences with each other. “It is the idea of empowering individuals with intelligence in the computational feedback loop. It’s a new way of thinking, and it may solve a lot of problems we have with the reduction of human value through surveillance and A.I,” expands Professor Mann.

“I refer to this as existential technology, where existence comes before essence,” says Mann. “I invented this for some reason, and it took me years to figure out why I was motivated to do that. First you bring something into existence, and the essence comes later,” he adds.

Hans Sandberg

From McDonalds to Mars

Two of the best-known companies building “wearable computers” are ViA Technologies in Minnesota, and Xybernaut in California - but giants like IBM have also developed wearable computers, and recently agreed to manufacture wearable computer systems for Xybernaut.

ViA recently introduced a 20-ounce wearable the size of two walkmans that they are testing for order taking at McDonald’s drive-thru restaurants. They are also testing a mobile security system, together with the U.S. Navy, that uses face recognition software called “FaceIt” (by Visionics) to make it easier for military police to monitor who gets onboard navy ships while in port. The security guard takes a digital photo of the person in question using his eyeglass-based camera, and instantly matches it to a government database. The whole process takes a matter of seconds.

Xybernaut announced on June 12, that their Mobile Assistant system had been chosen by NASA to be worn by humans in a training project – for a trip to Mars. “Wearable computers may be the future for many space missions,” says Dr. Pascal Lee, the project scientist.

Hans Sandberg

Isn’t a Palm Pilot also a wearable computer?

Though the world is full of nerds and businesspeople who carry around small computers and cell phones in their pockets or purses, the wearable computer is a different kind of beast - it is always on, and it is always accessible.

It doesn’t require the user to sit down to use it. It displays its content either on a small screen an inch away front your eyes - or projects it directly onto your retina. You tell it what to do, either by talking to it (voice recognition), or by fiddling with a special device for single-handed typing, like the commercially available Twiddler.

While you have to (or ought to) stop what you are doing while using a Palm computer or Pocket PC, the wearable computer is designed to assist you at the same time you are doing other things.

Hans Sandberg