Steve Mann hasn’t seen The Matrix. Strapped with cybernetic head gear and a battery-powered CPU undershirt, the 35-year-old professor is too immersed in his own alternate reality— or, as he calls it, mediated reality— to waste nine bucks on Keanu.
“This is something I invented before science fiction caught on to the idea,” he says flatly. “Captain Picard wasn’t around in the ’70s.”
Indeed, Mann is the anti-Trekkie: an engineer who has devoted himself not to science fiction, but science reality. He is the obsessive iconoclast of wearable computers, a burgeoning field that loosely describes everything from personal digital assistants to Mann’s latest untethered wares— a pair of sunglasses that allow him to record and manipulate images from the world around him. And the academic cyborgs are hoping you’ll join them soon.
Wearables, of course, are nothing new. Mann had a considerable burst of fame a few years ago when, inspired by England’s notorious coffee-pot cam, he began netcasting images from the point of view of his self-described WearComp: an intestinal-looking Cronenbergian helmet of bolts and wires. But now, the gee-whiz extremists are trying to design gadgets that are decidedly more stealthy— and, thus, marketable.
On a given afternoon, Mann might be seen roaming the University of Toronto faculty lounge with his covert eyetap glasses. Images are picked up through tiny cameras in the frames, then transmitted wirelessly to a receiving PC. The sleeker model is perfect for mundane human things like, say, grocery shopping. If Mann’s having trouble picking out a ripe avocado, his wife can tune in, see what he’s seeing, and e-mail a suggestion that will scroll across his lenses: “Honey, that one’s a little too bruised for the guacamole, no?”
Mann has spent three decades unabashedly fashioning himself as the über-nerd. In elementary school, years before the Walkman, he grafted a car stereo playback head and a pair of headphones onto a dictating machine so that he could hear music in the streets.
While pursuing his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab— the futurama think tank where Members Only epaulet jackets remain en vogue— Mann out-geeked everyone with
his first generation of head-mounted WearComps. Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte described Mann as “very much on the lunatic fringe.” Coming from him, that’s a compliment.
Now, though, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Digerati machismo assumes that one’s status is proportionate with one’s microgizmos. As a result, Silicon Alley conference hosts have to sheepishly remind the audience to use their cell phones in the lobby and, please, set their pagers on vibrate.
If Tom Zimmerman has his way, your whole body will vibrate. Zimmerman, another MIT Media Lab alumnus, has been working at IBM’s Almaden Research Center to perfect what he calls a Personal Area Network (PAN): a kind of local area network (LAN) made from flesh and blood.
The body is able to conduct electricity because of its natural salinity. PAN hijacks this conductivity to transmit electronic data, like, for example, the contents of a business card. Imagine the applications. In the future, two PAN people, hooked up to transmitters and receivers, could shake hands, forming a complete circuit, and swap egg-salad recipes.
According to another engineer, Jakob Nielsen, the need for wearable wares is pressing. “Our lives are getting filled with ever more obscure codes, passwords, user IDs, PINs, and URLs of various services on the Web,” he says. “As we move into the network economy this trend will continue to the absurd.” In response, Nielsen helped create the JavaRing, a tiny computer that can store all your necessary numbers, and even open a computer-coded door lock.
Still, one conundrum of wearable computers is that they’re being manufactured by techies with admittedly limited fashion sense. “From a user interface perspective,” Nielsen once wrote, “one can also hope that future rings will be designed by jewelry designers and look less nerdy.”
Mann’s Risky Business eyetaps are an earnest step, at least, in that direction. So far, he says, it seems to be working. “In the ’70s, people would see me wearing these things and walk across the street to avoid me,” Mann explains. “Now I get kids running over and saying, ‘Hey, can I play with that?’ ”