The Future of Wearable Computing

The father of wearable computing discusses our future as cyborgs

21 January 2013

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read Photo: Steve Mann

Google’s announcement last year of its Glass augmented reality (AR) eyeglasses project created a lot of excitement. But critics were quick to pooh-pooh the idea, even though Google had released only a prototype. And the glasses, which use AR to overlay information such as weather reports and commuter train service updates in the wearer’s view, quickly became fodder for YouTube spoof videos that showed people getting distracted and bumping into things on the street.

Although AR glasses might seem new to the public, they are wearable computers, which have been under development for decades. In general, wearables involve miniature sensory and computational mechanisms worn on the body to meld computer processing with day-to-day life. Google isn’t alone in working on the technology. In fact, Apple is rumored to be creating its own AR glasses.

But do we really want to walk around wearing tiny computers? Between smartphones and tablets or laptops, don’t we lug around enough electronics these days? IEEE Senior Member Steve Mann, known as the “father of wearable computing,” says he has the answer. Mann is the world’s first cyborg, a being that combines human with mechanical or electronic parts.

For the past three decades he has invented, designed, built, and worn computing tools. In 1978 he came up with what he called Digital Eye Glass. It included augmediated reality (the ability to augment some areas of the visual field of view and also diminish others, to prevent information overload). Next he invented a second-generation glass, called EyeTap. “It is a type of digital eye glass that causes the eye itself to, in effect, function as both a camera and display,” Mann says. Over the years he perfected EyeTap, and in 1999 he completed the fourth-generation version, which has infinite depth of focus.

“Google Glass is similar in appearance to my generation-4 glass but does not implement the EyeTap principle,” Mann says. “Google Glass is a generation-1 glass, meaning the eye itself is not the camera—the camera is off to the right of the eye.

“I have been walking around with digital eye glass, and I believe my life has been enhanced as a result,” says Mann, who adds that he was inspired to develop EyeTap because he needed to see better while learning to weld at the remarkably young age of 4.

Mann, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, is also general chair of the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, to be held 27 to 29 June in Toronto. The conference is expected to tackle the challenges of wearable computing. Papers for the event, sponsored by the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, are being accepted until 28 February on the conference website.

“Wearable computing will fundamentally improve the quality of our lives,” Mann wrote in “Through the Glass, Lightly,” which was published in the fall 2012 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 3.

Mann’s EyeTap is outfitted with cameras and sensors that communicate with a small wearable computer, which alters the wearer’s visual perception of the world. In Mann's third and fourth generation glass, the filtered information is sent to an aremac (“camera” spelled backward), a tiny device that generates rays of light to form an image that appears spatially aligned, and at the same focus as the real world. The EyeTap cameras combine several images to present more details than would be possible with a single camera or the human eye. Essentially, the glass lets Mann see the world in a better light.

“When I walk down a dark alley and see car headlights, the EyeTap glass can diminish the intense light, so I can see better,” he says. “I was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, and my EyeTap helped identify the perpetrator.”

Mann’s glass is not limited to dynamic range management—welding, say, or seeing in bright sunlight. It also can be used for navigation and face recognition, as well as correcting for vision anomalies that fall beyond the range of prescription eyewear.

In addition to downloading the eyeglass prescription dynamically (updating automatically, depending on the task at hand), EyeTap can map around blind spots and extend visual range.

Mann predicts that he will be far from the only one wearing such glass in the near future. But first there are challenges to overcome—namely getting the design just right and persuading people to accept the idea.

“It’s also important to ask ourselves whether the technology we’re developing benefits humanity. For example, can it actually help people see better?” Mann says. “There’s been a lot of hype over augmented reality, but is it going to make the world better for people? We need to make sure the technology we develop doesn’t cause harm.

“I’d like to pass along some of the wisdom I’ve gained in the past 30 to 40 years,” he adds. He’ll get an opportunity at the June conference, where he is scheduled to present some of the lessons he has learned while working on EyeTap.

When it comes to developing high-tech glass, Mann says Apple, Epson, Google, Nokia, and other companies in the field need to focus more on design. “The design has to be correct,” he says, “and I’m not seeing the industry take that issue on properly yet.”

The current EyeTap is vastly different from earlier versions. The glass is smaller and lighter, and the once bulky computer worn in a backpack in the 1980s has been reduced to one that fits inside the eyeglass frames. Perhaps the greatest improvement was positioning the cameras directly in the wearer’s line of sight. That prevents the headaches, dizziness, and flashbacks that were side effects of earlier models, whose cameras were to the side of one eye.

Among the technologies Mann developed to improve the imagery was high dynamic range photography, which allows for a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital-imaging or photographic methods.

In his three decades as a cyborg, Mann says he has encountered quite a bit of “shocking behavior” by the public in reaction to EyeTap. “I can only describe it as resistance to technology,” he writes in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine article. “My guess is that some people are frightened of the cameras that are necessary for the functioning of mediated, augmented, and augmediated reality. People are possibly frightened of being recorded, or just frightened of how the video may be captured and used against them at a later date.”

He notes that the people who have questioned him most have been those who use surveillance cameras, such as security guards and business owners.

But he says he thinks society’s fears of the technology can be assuaged: “The majority of individuals who raise questions about my EyeTap are appeased when I provide them with a simple explanation of what the eyeglass does and how it helps me.”

The ultimate goal for wearable computing is improving daily life, says Mann, who likens that objective to IEEE’s tagline, “Advancing technology for humanity.”

“I’m very impressed by that tagline,” Mann says. “When I think of it, I ask questions such as, ‘Is the technology [we are developing] making the world better for all of us?’ I believe the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, of which I’m a member, is really at the core of what IEEE stands for: technology in service of humanity.”

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