Message: 30
Date: 12.1.95
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Wearable Computing

The digital road warrior's kit - laptop, cell phone, PDA, and pager - is just capable enough to bother you everywhere without necessarily helping you anywhere. It's absurd that each device is still on such poor speaking terms with the others. We walk around like pack horses saddled with information appliances. We should be in the saddle, not under it.

The evolution of softwear

More than 20 years ago, The Architecture Machine Group at MIT built a mediaroom based on the idea that one should be inside a computer rather than in front of it. While that vision foreshadowed today's immersive environments, it did not go far enough and shrink the room to the size of a person. In the future, the PC will be blown to bits, many of which, naturally, should be kept near you rather than in your home or at your office. But so far, software has not been particularly soft. Though bits are as insubstantial as the ether, they tend to be packaged in hard boxes. For hardware and software to comfortably follow you around, they must merge into softwear. Developing wearable computing requires as much attention to the medium as the message.

In fact, the medium becomes the massage.

What single manufactured material are you exposed to the most? The answer is fabric. We wear it, stand on it, sit on it, and sleep in it. Marvelous technology goes into looms, but all we ask fabric to do is protect us from the elements, look pretty, and not wrinkle or shrink. Can't it do more?

Advances in conducting polymers and reversible optical media are pointing toward fabrics that can literally become displays. Amorphous semiconductors can be used to make solar cells to power fabric. Polymer semiconductors are candidates for wearable logic. The result would be the ultimate flexible computer architecture. Perhaps the biggest decision will be whether to buy clothes from Egghead or software from Brooks Brothers. Fashion accessories will take on new roles, becoming some of the most important Internet access points, conveniently surrounding you in a Person Wide Web. How better to receive audio communications than through an earring, or to send spoken messages than through your lapel? Jewelry that is blind, deaf, and dumb just isn't earning its keep. Let's give cuff links a job that justifies their name.

Footwear is particularly attractive for computing. Your shoes have plenty of unclaimed space, receive an enormous amount of power (from walking) that is currently untapped, and are ideally placed to communicate with your body and the ground. And a shoe bottom makes much more sense than a laptop - to boot up, you put on your boots. When you come home, before you take off your coat, your shoes can talk to the carpet in preparation for delivery of the day's personalized news to your glasses.

The body bus
A wearable computer will be useless if you have to walk around looking like the back of your desk. Fortunately, bits are more than skin deep. Tom Zimmerman (tz@media .mit.edu) has shown that the noncontact coupling between your body and weak electric fields can be used to create and sense tiny nano-amp currents in your body. Modulating these signals creates Body Net, a personal-area network that communicates through your skin. Using roughly the same voltage and frequencies as audio transmissions, this will be as safe as wearing a pair of headphones. Keeping data in your body avoids the intrusion of wires, the need for an optical path for infrared, and conventional problems such as regulation and eavesdropping.

Your shoe computer can talk to a wrist display and keyboard and heads up glasses. Activating your body means that everything you touch is potentially digital. A handshake becomes an exchange of digital business cards, a friendly arm on the shoulder provides helpful data, touching a doorknob verifies your identity, and picking up a phone downloads your numbers and voice signature for faithful speech recognition.

Cyborgs are here already. No, this isn't a paranoid fantasy about intruders from the future. Two cyborgs have been roaming the Media Lab, wearing computers day in and day out for over two years. It's an uncanny experience teaching a course to Thad Starner, who is simultaneously watching you lecture and annotating the lecture notes behind you through Reflection Technologies' Private Eye, a wearable heads-up display (the same used in Nintendo's Virtual Boy).

Steve Mann goes further, wearing a completely immersive system: movable cameras connect to a local computer and a transmitter to send video to a workstation for processing and delivery back to displays in front of his eyes. This lets him enhance what he sees (he likes living in a "rot 90" rotated world) and position his eyes. (Some days he likes having his eyes above his head, or at his feet, and when he rides a bicycle he sets one eye looking forward and one backward.) He can assemble everything he's seen into larger mosaics or 3-D images, and through the radio-frequency link you can see through his eyes (at http://www-white.media.mit.edu/~steve/netcam.html). Don't expect to see much computing featured in Bill Blass's next collection, but this kind of digital headdress will become more common. Bear in mind that 20 years ago, no publisher anticipated that teletype terminals would grow into a portable threat to books, that paper tapes would merge with film into multimedia CD-ROMs, or that telephones would threaten the whole business model of publishing by bringing the Web into your home. The difference in time between loony ideas and shipped products is shrinking so fast that it's now, oh, about a week.

This article was co-authored by Neil Gershenfeld (gersh@media.mit.edu), an MIT professor and one of three co-principal investigators of the Media Lab's newest research consortium, Things That Think.

Next Issue: Where Do New Ideas Come From?

[Back to the Index of WIRED Articles | Back to Nicholas Negroponte's Home Page | Back to Media Lab Home Page]
[Previous | Next]

[Copyright 1995, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 3.12 December 1995.]