Cyborg Seeks Community

Meet one of the creators of wearable computing and join him in his search for like-minded folks to live in an augmented reality.

People find me peculiar. They think it’s odd that I spend most of my waking hours wearing eight or nine Internet-connected computers sewn into my clothing and that I wear opaque wrap-around glasses day and night, inside and outdoors. They find it odd that to sustain wireless communications during my travels, I will climb to the hotel roof to rig my room with an antenna and Internet connection. They wonder why I sometimes seem detached and lost, but at other times I exhibit vast knowledge of their specialty. A physicist once said he felt that I had the intelligence of a dozen experts in his discipline; a few minutes later, someone else said they thought I was mentally handicapped.

Despite the peculiar glances I draw, I wouldn’t live any other way. I have melded technology with my person and achieved a higher state of awareness than would otherwise be possible. I see the world as images imprinted onto my retina by rays of light controlled by several computers, which in turn are controlled by cameras concealed inside my glasses.

Every morning I decide how I will see the world that day. Sometimes I give myself eyes in the back of my head. Other days I add a sixth sense, such as the ability to feel objects at a distance. If I’m going to ride my bicycle, I’ll want to feel the cars and trucks pressing against my back, even when they are a few hundred feet away.

This story is part of our May/June 1999 Issue
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Things appear different to me than they do to other people. I see some items as hyperobjects that I can click on and bring to life. I can choose stroboscopic vision to freeze the motion of rotating automobile tires and see how many bolts are on the wheels of a car going over 60 miles per hour, as if it were motionless. I can block out the view of particular objects-sparing me the distraction, for example, of the vast sea of advertising around me.

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.

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.

Wearing Well

Although I spent many years developing WearComp in relative isolation, I welcome efforts to commercialize wearable computers. At the vanguard is Xybernaut, based in Fairfax, Va. Xybernaut’s latest model is being manufactured by Sony, indicating that the Japanese electronics giant has an interest in what some believe will become the Walkman of computing. Last May, Xybernaut organized its own conference on wearable computing (and invited me to give the keynote address). I may also begin to license some embodiments of my original WearComp, as well as many of my more recent innovations, to companies who want to manufacture commercial systems. I think it will be especially important to make the cyborg outfit less cumbersome-something that’s long been a goal of mine. My latest version is quite sleek, and looks just like ordinary bifocal eyeglasses, with the eyetap point hidden along the cut line. Even when fully rigged, I can still play an acceptable game of squash.

I realize that some people see me and my invention as a potential threat-like the Borg of Star Trek fame: “You will be assimilated.” Clearly, there are important philosophical issues to be explored. Not only is there the danger of the technology being used to monitor people to make them into obedient productive cyborgs, but there is also the potential that people will become too dependent on this technology. My goal as a responsible inventor and engineer, however, has always been to encourage the development and manufacture of wearable computers as a means of personal, not institutional, empowerment. That will make worthwhile all the obstacles and challenges I have faced during my more than 20 years of developing this technology.

I hope that if I bring WearComp to market, anyone who wishes to will eventually be able to become a cyborg. We’ll live in a collaborative computer-mediated reality that will allow us to no longer need to distinguish between cyberspace and the real world. And then this cyborg will have lots of company.

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