This text report attempts to answer some of the questions that have been asked during the past 20 to 25 years of my wearing personal technologies in the real world.
Q. What is a wearable computer and what can it do that laptops can't?
A. Wearable computing facilitates a new form of human--computer interaction based on a small body--worn computer system that is always on and always ready and accessible. In this regard, the new computational framework differs from that of hand held devices, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The ``always ready'' capability leads to a new form of synergy between human and computer, characterized by long-term adaptation through constancy of user--interface. The formal definition, given by Webster encyclopedia, may be found at http://wearcomp.org/wearcompdef.html
Q. Why do wearable computers typically use a
head mounted display (HMD) rather
than a hand-held or
A. The HMD allows the apparatus to be used with less conscious thought or effort. For example, even when you are not engaged in the activity of using the apparatus, it may signal to you, as with Xbiff, to let you know you have mail. This is possible because the device runs continuously, even when you are not really trying to use it. Moreover, it can augment or mediate your visual experience of reality, and facilitates a "Reality User Interface" (RUI). At the very least, an HMD provides privacy so that nobody else can easily read your screen while doing other things (e.g. while walking down the street, and typing at the same time).
Q. Why would I want a screen in front of my eyes all the time?
A. The idea is to be "always ready", for example, you might look up the definition of "wearable computer" online (such as in the about.com "encyclopedia"), or you might interact with people through the medium, while doing other things. You might also constantly grab images into a circular buffer, and then retroactively record something. In this way, you're always ready, and seldom miss a good shot. Retroactive recording allows you to, for example, issue a command like "begin recording starting from five minutes ago". With a hand held camera, you would have missed that great shot, or failed to get a good picture of the perpetrator (criminal) or perpetraitor (corrupt official).
Q. Don't you have trouble seeing in low light when you have a
screen in front of your eyes all the time?
A. The brightness of the screen is automatically adjusted in response to the brightness of the scene. Thus the screen dims down in low ambient light. Back in the early 1980s, a colleague by the name of Kent Nickerson further suggested I put a red gel over my wearable display screen. In this way, the screen can be run a little brighter than the ambient light without desensing vision, which would otherwise require a short time period to return to full sensitivity. This suggestion was based on his belief that the eye's AGC was based on a sampling in the middle region of the spectrum (e.g. green). A blue filter would of course make it harder to read the screen, since blue is difficult to focus on. Thus after much experimentation, I decided to use red in low light. With a colour screen this selection is automatic. With Laser EyeTap, which is usually red already, the gel is not needed.
Q. How can I build my own "wearcomp"?
A. The feature (cover) article of the June 1998 issue of Circuit Cellar has plans on how to build your own wearcomp system. The article is archived on the wearable computing www page: http://wearcomp.org/wearhow/index.html There are two approaches, one is to "hack" a laptop computer, and the other is to build the wearcomp from scratch.
Q. If I'm no good with building things, can I just buy one?
A. Yes. The main commercial manufacturer of wearable computers is Xybernaut (www.xybernaut.com).
Q. How much to these computers cost?
A. Prices tend to be in the thousands of dollars, whether you buy or build. An alternative approach is to assemble a low cost system. For example, you can obtain an older computer that has NTSC output and connect it to a small cathode ray tube from a camera viewfinder. Be careful of the high voltages of course: 5000 volts or 6000 volts is common in small camera viewfinders. Some such complete wearable computer systems have been built for as little as $20.
Q. A major portion of the cost of a wearable computer is in the display.
Isn't there a cheaper alternative?
A. Yes, the article (Circuit Cellar, June 1998) describes how you can use a viewfinder salvaged from a broken video camera. See also http://wearcomp.org/head-mounted-displays.html
Q. Isn't NTSC resolution too low to display a VGA image?
A. There are many good video camera viewfinders that can display 24 rows of 80 characters. While many of the modern LCD viewfinders are not capable of 80x24 text, there are a good many older black and white viewfinders that can display a sharp and clear 80x24 screen, and many can be had for $10 or less. As a parts scavenger, just be on the lookout for studio quality video cameras. My twenty year old NTSC WearComp2 rig is still readable in 80x24.
Q. How long does it run before you have to put in new batteries?
A. Batteries are generally swapped once, twice, or maybe three times a day, depending on how much equipment is being used at any given time.
Q. What programs do you run?
A. Most of the GNU freeware, such as GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program), XV, emacs, etc., as well as various calendar and planning programs. The reason for using GNU/Linux is to have an open environment. If you've ever tried to do something as simple as getting Win95 or NT to operate over an ascii text teletype interface, you can understand the need for getting outside the box. Thinking outside the box is possible when the box is not welded shut. Linux is reconfigurable and extensible
Q. How long have you been wearing that camera?
A. The systems have evolved over a number of years, early versions in the 1970s gave way to more sleek and slender systems in the 1980s, so it's been evolving, for more than 20 years.
Q. What do you use for a keyboard?
A. If you're going on the cheap, use a collection of pushbutton microswitches. These switches can be found in many old appliances or equipment, and are often driven by camshafts. Collect as many as you can, and try to arrange them in order of stiffness, so that the baby finger pushes the most gentle one, while the stiffest is at the thumb position. See http://wearcam.org/ieeecomputer.html for pictures of this kind of keyboard. If you have some money, buy a "twiddler" from handykey (www.handykey.com). You may also want to buy a "BAT" keyboard from www.infogrip.com, to which you can connect microswitches, so that you will be able to plug directly into the keyboard port. You can sometimes negotiate a good deal on a bare board (e.g. without the housing) from infogrip.
Q. Is it true that you type while jogging?
A. Yes, with a properly designed keyboard, you can type while walking around, jogging, running, or doing other activities. Typical wearcomp keyboards are held in one hand and are easy to use, leaving the other hand free.
Q. Why don't you use speech recognition?
A. Early systems, in the 1970s, were voice controlled, but more recently it has been found that voice control is unsuitable for most occasions. Besides the fact that people will think you're strange when you talk to yourself, it is very impolite to speak while others are speaking. For example, in class, if you use it to take notes, you would be disrupting others with your speech. You may not always merely want a transcript (or recording) of what the instructor is saying, but often you will want to record your own thoughts that may be triggered by what the instructor has said. For this, you would want a medium of your own that can be used unobtrusively.
Q. Doesn't your typing on those loud clicky switches bother other people?
A. The loud clicky switches of the 1970s and 1980s have given way to much quieter soft-touch switches. Modern one-handed keyboards can be much quieter than the quietest of soft-touch laptop computer keyboards. Moreover, since you can hide your hand under the table or in a pocket, the typing sounds are that much more diminished, as is the distracting movement of the hand.
Q. Doesn't the display ruin your eyes, as it's so close?
A. The virtual image of the display is quite far away, and in fact, if it is adjusted so that parallel rays of light enter the eye, then one experiences light equivalent to an infinitely large image, infinitely far away. Eye damage from excessively bright light, over extended time periods, is however still a problem, but dark glasses can help to minimize the quantity of light needed to balance with the ambient light.
Q. How can you have a hard drive on a moving computer? Won't you lose data
or wreck the hard drive if you walk around while using it?
A. Many hard drives commonly used in laptop computers can withstand 100G operational shock. It is common to go jogging while editing, and sometimes to shoot documentary video while on horseback or riding a mountain bike down the center of a railway line, bumping over every railway tie, and capturing the experience on a hard drive.
Q. How much hard drive space do you have in your underwear?
A. Typically there are two hard drives, 18G each, so that's 36 gigabytes.
Q. Can you record video onto a hard drive?
A. Yes. SCSI is preferable for this, since it gives better performance than IDE. Also with SCSI you can have a wearable striping or RAID system.
Q. How is it that people can see whatever you're looking at? What kind of
video transmitter do you use?
A. There is a wireless radio link between the wearable apparatus and the Internet. The link is bidirectional, and is based on TCP/IP, so that others can not only see what the wearer is looking at, but can also send messages to the wearer, or otherwise alter the wearer's perception of visual reality. The radio design used (WA4DSY) is about 13 years out of date, so the connection is slow (56kbps), but faster radios are in the works. A base station is erected in each major area, by one of the lead users. The N1NLF gateways were used for this (see Jan 1997 CQ-VHF). I also had to set up base stations in various cities I have lived in over the past 20 years. Back in 1985, I shared a house with a security guard for Royal Bank, and got to know him well enough that he let me up on the roof, where I set up some antennas. Since then, I've had a long history of setting up my own base station whereever I go.
Q. What if I don't want to get my radio license?
A. It is strongly recommended that one take the Amateur Radio operator's license, but if one is dead-set against this, one may also use cellular, CDPD, but the result is a very slow and unreliable system. CDPD is an afterthought to the telephone system. That may change in years to come, but the process is much slower than claimed (e.g. there are many promises that have been and continue to be unfulfilled). A much better system is the ClearNET Mike system using phones such as the i700 or i1000 that are web browsers and have serial data connections.
Q. Do I need to look wierd to be wired?
A. Covert wearcomp/wearcam systems developed in the early 1990s took an important first step toward making it possible to look normal and be connected. Currently the so-called "underwearable computer" makes it possible to be wired without looking wierd.
Q. Can I lead an active lifestyle while wired?
A. Early systems of the 1970s were quite cumbersome and delicate. Although they were sometimes worn while playing road hockey, or the like, they were delicate and not suitable for rough sports. Durability and unrestrictiveness have been partly addressed but truly durable construction still remains as a challenge.
Q. Since the development of the covert (underwearable) computer, what remains
as a physical design challenge?
A. It was said that the three tests of personal imaging would be: (1) the casino test; (2) the sports (e.g. vollayball) test; and (3) the swim test. The underwearable made it possible to shoot documentary videos in gambling casinos, and it has been ruggedized to the point where it can be used in some sports, but the swim test probably remains as the most difficult of these three. Since many universities still have a mandatory swim test for undergraduates, there may then be at least one time when one must disrobe and remove the apparatus. A goal of the true cyborg spirit is to fight regulations and the like, that might require removal of the apparatus, and a mandatory disrobing requirement is one such regulation. Ironically, this has been a harder fight than that of using it during written tests and exams. It is unclear at this time what will come first: the abolishment of the mandatory swim test required to, for example, obtain an undergraduate degree from certain places such as cornell and MIT, or the design of a system that can withstand this kind of abuse.
Q. Are there other situations in which I might be asked to remove the apparatus
or required to engage in activities where it is not likely possible for me to
wear the apparatus at all times?
A. The issue has arisen with respect to written tests, exams, etc., as well as orals (such as thesis defense) and most instructors have been reasonable, if given the appropriate explanation. a good argument is that the test is a measure of how well the person will perform in real life, and that the device is part of the person, and therefore the person will have the device in real life. As a "second brain" it learns with the person, so the knowledge learned in the class can apply to the real world in the same way. Don't expect the maffia to have the same kind of sympathy toward a mental prosthetic. It's not uncommon to hear of somebody getting their legs broken or simply being "disappeared" for using such devices in gambling casinos. On the other hand, the hope is that connectivity can make the device function as a personal safety device. Also, you can expect abusive teachers, drug dealers, and corrupt officials to not like the accountability, and therefore to not like the apparatus. For more on this notion, see http://wearcomp.org/ars/hi.html
Q. Do you wear that thing in the shower? Do you sleep with it on?
A. Most of the time one wears the system during most of the waking hours. Sometimes it is worn during sleeping, especially "crashing" somewhere in which there is not a suitable place to undress or change clothes. Ironically, one often becomes so accustomed to the hard disk activity that one will wake up from a deep sleep if there is something wrong with the system (e.g. power failure or total inactivity of the hard drive). Current systems are not waterproof and must be removed prior to showering. As mentioned above, with respect to the sports test and the swim test, there are obvious limitations that make it impossible to wear it all the time. Nevertheless, it is often worn so much that it becomes inextricably intertwined to the wearer.
Q. Aren't you hot in that thing? Why do you wear long-sleeved shirts in the
A. One thing that comes to mind, that might not at first be obvious, is that one adapts to the heat produced by the apparatus. After several years, the body's metabolism slows down, and resting heart rate is much lower. This condition is similar to someone who has an "athletic heart", or someone who comes from a warm climate in which the blood has "thinned". Normally the body operates inefficiently, but with the device on, producing waste heat, the body reduces its heat dissipation. The only way for the body to reduce its production of waste heat is to become more efficient, or "athletic". Thus even when one does not engage in a great deal of physical activity, one becomes more similar to an athlete in one's body efficiency. A related side-effect of wearing the apparatus for many years is that one becomes unable to tolerate cold when removing the device, and tends to need to wear heavy clothing in place of the device, even when it is not extremely cold. On very cold winter days, the difference is not so noticable (e.g. since it is additive not multiplicative), but the difference between a "cyborg" who has taken off the machine, and someone who doesn't normally wear the machine, is most evident in the summer time, where the cyborg will be found wearing long-sleeved shirts. Also the difference between the cyborg and the non-cyborg is not so evident during physical activity as it is during sleeping. The cyborg who has stripped off the machine will need more blankets than the non-cyborg during sleeping, but during active moments, the two will be approximately the same (except perhaps the cyborg who has recently removed the apparatus will be better able to run further on a hot day).
Q. Aren't you afraid someone might steal it? You say the camera and
transmitter give you personal safety to protect you against attack, but won't
the device itself become the target of a theft?
A. Firstly, it is very hard to separate the apparatus from the wearer. It is much harder to strip off a person's clothing than it is to steal a person's laptop computer, especially given the tendency for people to leave the latter in a briefcase sitting on the floor. At the very least, one can say that a wearcomp will seldom be lost due to simple neglect (like forgetting a briefcase on a bus). Moreover, because the apparatus is somewhat delicate, it would likely get damaged in a struggle, if one were to be forcibly disrobed. Stolen clothing is often ripped or torn in the struggle, and therefore worth much less to the thief. Lastly, the apparatus tends to be customized to the individual, and a would be about as attractive to a thief as somebody else's mouthguard or somebody else's underwear.
Q. Do you have problems going through airport security?
A. It is interesting the manner in which the paranoia has increased together with the reduction in size of the apparatus, and so what is most notable, is that there has been a roughly constant level of aggrevation at the airport. As the apparatus has gotten smaller, over the years, so too has the paranoia level gotten higher. Words like "lead-acid" and "lithium ion" are frightening to them --- it's better to call them "camcorder batteries" when they ask what kind of batteries they are. They'd like it to go in the cargo hold, (e.g. as checked luggage) or at least off-body (carry-on rather than wear-on). If you wear it, expect to find yourself sometimes in a private search area in your underwear, pulled back, or the like, and the nose of a specially trained dog at the point of contact between your body and the apparatus. Sometimes one may be asked to shut down during takeoff and landing. One might half-expect "please turn off all pacemakers during takeoff and landing". It's been a lot better, working directly with the FAA, on what's acceptable. It kind-of ruins the experiment if you've got to strip it off and lose data (e.g. if keeping a year-long ECG, respiration, video, etc. record), but they're paranoid about emissions during takeoff and landing.
Q. Aren't there problems using the toilet or changing clothes? Where do you
put it if you want to go for a swim?
A. Traditional restroom facilities can create a problem, especially with the underwearable. Many restroom stalls do not provide sufficient space in which to undress. Fortunately, with the advent of restrooms which have one larger stall for the disabled, it is possible to undress there. Another common problem is in using communal facilities, such as when staying in a youth hostel with communal sleeping and showering spaces. In this case, one may want to sleep with the rig on, to reduce the possibility of theft. One may also want to ask a friend to watch the rig while showering, since it may be regarded as a rather expensive set of clothing.
Q. How do you deal with the issues of multiple identies living in a single
body, especially with regards to entering gender-specific places?
A. Another issue, of course, is that of multiple identity. While wearing the rig, one may assume as many as 30000 different identities in a single day, in which, for example, others may live vicariously through the wearer of the apparatus. As an extreme example, consider a blind man being remotely guided by his wife, so that his body is a telematic extension of her eyes. Should he use the men's room or the women's room? Fortunately, the trend is shifting toward more "family" change rooms, individual change rooms and individual shower compartments, etc.. Thus this problem is beginning to go away. In the future, we will no longer be able to ascribe gender characteristics in such a clear-cut manner, once we consider collectives living remotely through a person's body, and the notions of communal men-only or women-only spaces may need to dissolve.
Q. What can I do about gym class where I have to change in front of others?
A. As a cyborg-activist, you can do your part to defend privacy by opposing the construction of communal-only shower and changing facilities. Often designers are willing to accept feedback from mere individuals, and there have even been court cases where students have filed lawsuits (and won) opposing mandatory showers on the basis of privacy violation. What you have under your clothing is nobody else's business! Litigation by one or two students is enough to effect future building plans and architectural blueprints. Do what you can to make sure new installations are "cyborg friendly". When you see that a facility is being renovated, make your voice heard. Another thing to push for is a reasonable number of 1-person change and shower rooms (more like a bathroom in a house), with large shelf, wall hooks (to hang clothing), and, if possible a large mirror, and GFI (ground-fault-interrupt) AC outlet for plugging in test equipment.
Q. When you're invited to lecture or perform, do you have any special
A. When being invited somewhere to give a major performance, or a major presentation such as a keynote address, it is common to specify that there be a proper place to change in private, which also typically forms a base of operations. A hotel room near the conference site is best, but if the hotel is not near the conference site, a temporary operational base may be established. The dressing area will typically have a mirror and a GFI AC outlet. Sometimes there may be instrumentation such as oscilloscope, spectrum analyzer, and tools such as soldering iron and hot melt glue, located in the dressing area. Ideally the dressing room is off-limits to others for the duration of the event, e.g. so that equipment such as spectrum analyzer, etc., may be securely left there, along with spare battery chargers, base station, etc..
Q. Where can I learn more about wearable computing and wearable cameras?
A. A good place to start is IEEE Computer 30(2) wearcam.org/ieeecomputer.html
See also the lead (cover) article of Nov.'98 Proceedings of the IEEE, http://wearcam.org/procieee.html
Q. Where can I find out more about WearComp?
A. The international wearable computing WWW page is at http://wearcomp.org and there are numerous other institute-specific wearable computing WWW pages that can be found at CMU, MIT, University of Toronto, GaTech, etc. All you need to do is a WWW search on "wearcomp", or any other such.
Q. Why do you type with frequent line breaks?
> Hmmm. Professor Mann's into haiku now, I guess. > > Wearables, lovely > with a 486 or Pentium-with-heatsink > in the summer > > ;-) > > GurneyA. When mobile, font size is varied in accordance with stabilization. When relative motion due to shake exceeds motion stabilization capability, a large font is needed. Moreover, a larger font enables attention to continue to be focused on the surroundings. Thus during high dynamics, such as running down stairs three at a time, as I often do while typing, the following factors come into play: