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Ahead of My Time

Growing up during the 1960s and early 1970s, I always seemed to be creating things before their time. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario-a city on the western tip of Lake Ontario about 100 kilometers from Toronto. I came by this inclination naturally; during the early 1950s, my father had built what was perhaps the first wearable radio. (He had pursued radio as a hobby since his childhood.) He had taught me quite a bit about electronic circuits by the time I started kindergarten. As a young child, I removed the head from a portable battery-powered dictating machine and replaced it with the head from a high-fidelity audio cassette deck. From this cassette transport mechanism, I built a system that enabled me to listen to music while walking around. While many people scoffed at this invention, I found it nice to be able to drown out background music while shopping, to assert my own idea of personal space, and to defend myself from theft of my solitude by the department stores with their Muzak.

In my teens I founded a concept of mediated reality, which I called “lightspace.” The goal of lightspace was to experience an altered perception of visual reality by exploring a large range of possible forms of illumination while observing a scene or object from different viewpoints. My work with lightspace led to the invention of my wearable computer. My desire to create photographic instruments that would function as true extensions of my mind and body-and my desire to control these photographic instruments in new ways-created a need for the ability to program complex sequences of events.

I began to take this matter seriously, building a digital computer from a large number of electronic components salvaged from an old telephone switching computer. I did much of this experimentation in the basement of a television repair shop where I spent much of my childhood as a volunteer, fixing TV sets. In this shop I built up a great deal of knowledge about electronic circuits.

The result of my early efforts was, in the early 1970s, a family of wearable computers I called “WearComp0.” Sometimes I took these cumbersome prototypes outside in search of spaces dark enough to explore the altered perception of visual reality I could create using portable battery-powered light sources. People would cross the street to avoid me, not knowing what to make of what must have looked to them like an alien creature. The rig was physically a burden, weighing as much or more than I did. After wearing one of these encumbrances from sundown (when it got dark enough to use them) to sunrise, my feet would be swollen, blistered and bleeding.

I continued to refine WearComp0 and its evolutionary successor, WearComp1. After much tinkering, I came up with WearComp2-my first system that truly qualified as a wearable computer in the sense that it was not just a special purpose device. WearComp2 was field programmable, with a full-function input device (a keyboard and joystick for cursor control both built into the handle of an electronic flashgun), text and graphical displays, sound recording and playback (crude, home-brew analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters), and a wireless data connection to provide links to other computers. I completed this system in 1981, before most of the world realized that computers could be portable, much less wearable.

Though an advance over my earlier prototype, WearComp2 was still a burden to lug. I wanted to reduce its bulk and make it look more normal. This goal led me in 1982 to experiment with building components directly into clothing. I learned how to make flexible circuits that could be embedded into ordinary fabric. This work enabled me to make versions of WearComp that were not only more comfortable to walk around in but also less off-putting to others.

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Tagged: Communications

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