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Interview : The ultimate wearable computer

An article by John Makulowich
Most of us have a rather simple notion of a wearable computer. It could be a wireless phone, with a myriad of features, that you hook to your belt. It might be a wristwatch for two-way communication and a global-positioning system - maybe even digital camera. Or it might actually be planted under your skin.

When I finally catch up with the man who invented the concept (wearable computer or WearComp) about 20 years ago, Professor Steve Mann of the University of Toronto, he explains why he could not get back to me more quickly by e-mail. It seems he was underwater when he got my message.

As he says in his first note, "I just got your message now (I was splashing around in the pool as some time offline, disconnected from the Net, but I'm waterproofing my rig (computer eyeglasses or Eyetap), so I won't have to be offline anymore)."

Not only does Mann give new meaning to the term "connected," but the notion of wearable computer also takes on a richness well beyond what you and I conjure up. In fact, Mann is one of those people who invents terms and creates glossaries to define a whole new field.

A case in point is Eyetap. This device makes your eye both a camera and a digital display. Mann says this WearComp gathers light that normally enters your eyes by reflecting it into a camera using a mirror mounted in front of your eyes. It changes the light into data, processes this light-data with a computer worn on your body, then projects it back to your eyes with an aremac.

What's an aremac? That's a camera in reverse - equipment that converts electronic image data into light. For example, you can use a computer monitor as an aremac.

The applications range from the trivial to the terrible. You're in the supermarket shopping for dinner. You contact your spouse through your wearable computer. Not only do you get details on what to get, but you also can stop in front of produce and get a second opinion on the best head of lettuce to buy when you send its picture back through your glasses to your spouse, who is sitting in front of a monitor.

At the other extreme are the military uses, as foot soldiers become ever more like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as cyborgs. In fact, Mann revealed in one interview that he typically wears 16 to 32 wires under his shirt as well as electrodes on his body to measure respiration and heart rate. In the morning, he puts on the undershirt that takes all the readings. What Mann is trying to do with wearable technologies is extract intelligence from the human host.

Practically, Mann's company, EXISTech, is working with apparel manufacturers. The idea of the undershirt as a computer system - for sensing physiological signals or as a personal safety device - grew from his prototypes in the early 1980s.

Among the potential users are the disabled, who might have difficulty controlling various external devices. He says his general idea of the future is to put people in more control of the space around them.

If the Eyetap catches on, how it will change our behavior? Mann believes we will see a blurring of any distinction between thinking and computing as well as a breakdown of any kind of distinction between remembering and recording.

For Alzheimer's patients, as well as anyone with a visual memory impairment, the visual memory prosthetic means such patients will never forget names and faces. He cautions that people had better get ready for Witnessential Networks - where crime is impossible, even if you are a politician or a police officer.

Further, unless we have thought-police monitoring our thinking (computing), we will see the decline of intellectual-property rights as we know them today.
Alongside all this, the effect on business also would be profound. With EyeTap technology, the distinction fades between cyberspace and the real world.

Milia 2002