In spite of these advances, my life as a cyborg remained mostly solitary. I did connect quite literally (by serial data cable) with an understanding woman during my freshman year at McMaster University in my hometown of Hamilton. We faced unusual challenges in this configuration, such as having to choose which public restroom to use when we were joined. Thinking back, I imagine we must have made a comical sight, trying to negotiate doorways without snagging the cable that tethered us together.
Such relationships were rare, and it was seldom that I could get others to wear my seemingly strange contraptions. Many people were unable to get past my technological shell, which they apparently found more than a little odd. Still, multimediated reality had provided me with a unique vision of the world, and by the mid-1980s I had a following of people on the fringes of society who shared (or at least appreciated) my vision. I was invited to shoot pictures for album covers and hair ads. By 1985, I began to realize that it wasn’t just the finished photographs people wanted; they also seemed to enjoy watching me take the pictures. Often I would be shooting in large warehouses, with audiences of hundreds of people. I began to realize that I had become a cyborg performance artist. By the end of the 1980s, however, I found myself yearning to return to my more substantive childhood passions for science, mathematics and electrical engineering.
While at McMaster, I added biosensors to the WearComp so that it could monitor my heart rate (as well as the full EKG waveform) and other physiological signals. I also invented the “vibravest”-a garment studded with radar transceivers and vibrating elements. Wearing this vest made objects at a distance feel as if they were pressing against my body. I could close my eyes and walk down the hallway, confident that any wall or other obstacle would be felt as warning vibrations on the appropriate side of the vest. By sparing myself from the cognitive load of processing all that visual information, I found I was able to think more clearly.
In 1991, I brought my inventions to MIT as a PhD student. As a cyborg, uprooting myself from Canada was a formidable task, since I had installed my cyberbody in Canada over a period of many years. Going to MIT was a sudden move of my extended self.
First, I secretly climbed up onto the rooftops of buildings around the city to put in place the wireless data communications infrastructure I had brought with me from Canada. I had to quickly deploy my base stations at the top of elevator shafts or anywhere else I could find warm dry places. This way, whenever I wanted an Internet connection, these gateways would be ready to send the data to me, no matter where I was-even if I was in a basement or riding on the subway.
Although I kept in touch with my family through cyberspace, my first two years at MIT were lonely times IRL-in real life. I was, after all, the only person there with a wearable computer. Then in 1993, at the request of a fellow student, a local engineer named Doug Platt built a wearable system. I was no longer the only cyborg at MIT.
It took some years to get other cyborgs at MIT, thus enabling the beginnings of a sense of community. Although I never succeeded in getting a large community outfitted with my high-speed packet radio systems, the cellular telephones that began to emerge provided another answer to the problem of connectivity.
By the end of 1995, my work was attracting serious academic interest. I was asked to write an article about my work for IEEE Computer, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Computer Society. I also proposed an academic symposium on wearables and was referred to T. Michael Elliott, executive director of the Computer Society. I figured that such a conference would legitimize the field, which until then had consisted in many people’s minds of “Steve, that crazy guy running around with a camera on his head.” Elliott was enthusiastic about the idea and in 1996 the Computer Society responded with an overwhelming “yes.” This marked a turning point in my acceptance by my professional peers.
More than 700 people attended this first IEEE-sponsored symposium on wearable computing, held in Cambridge, Mass., in October 1997. A gala “Wearables” event the following day drew 3,000 people. In that same year I received my doctorate from MIT in wearable computing. This was a gratifying culmination: I had turned a childhood hobby and passion into an MIT project, the topic of a conference, and a PhD dissertation.
This past year I returned to Canada to pursue my work at the University of Toronto. Why Toronto? I had lived there in the mid-1980s, and the city had seemed very “cyborg-friendly.” I had sensed there a cosmopolitan diversity as well as a genuine warmth and openness that contrasted with the more cyborg-hostile and tense atmosphere of some large U.S. cities.