Will Knight

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From Our Archive: Wearable Computing, Long Before Google Glass

What was it like to use a wearable computer back in 1999?

  • May 17, 2013

If you’re interested in Google Glass, the Internet giant’s ingenious, terrifying, baffling (tick as appropriate), head-worn computer display (see “Treading Carefully, Google Encourages Developers to Hack Glass”), you might like to read a feature article that appeared in the pages of MIT Technology Review nearly fifteen years ago, which puts the project in some historical context.

In the cover story “Cyborg Seeks Community”, Steve Mann—one of the pioneers of the field known as “wearable computing” along with Thad Starner who is heavily involved with the Glass project at Google—gives a then-futuristic account of what it’s like to use an always-internet-connected, head-mounted wearable computer. Some of it seems remarkably similar to what we’re hearing about glass. For example, Mann writes:

[People] 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.

To really enjoy the piece, you can sign up and download the PDF of that issue here, which includes some great photos of Mann and his cohorts. Looking at these old images, and reading Mann’s account, I can’t help feeling that, for those brave pioneers, wearable computing was not only about finding new ways for technology to mediate your experience of the world; it was also about exploring a future that would be too weird for most people, not to mention wearing your nerdiness like a giant badge of honor. So it seems particularly ironic to see wearable computers on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week.

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