Wearable Computing

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"Wearable computing facilitates a new form of human--computer interaction comprising a small body--worn computer (e.g. user--programmable device) that is always on and always ready and accessible. In this regard, the new computational framework differs from that of hand held devices, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The "always ready capability leads to a new form of synergy between human and computer, characterized by long-term adaptation through constancy of user--interface.

A wearable computer is a computer that is subsumed into the personal space of the user, controlled by the user, and has both operational and interactional constancy, i.e. is always on and always accessible. Most notably, it is a device that is always with the user, and into which the user can always enter commands and execute a set of such entered commands, and in which the user can do so while walking around or doing other activities" [1].

Wearable Computing Pioneer Steve Mann defines Wearable Computing "in terms of its three basic modes of operation and its six fundamental attributes" [2].

Operational modes of wearable computing

Steve Mann identifies three operational modes in the interaction between human and computer [3]:


The computer runs continuously, and is always ready to interact with the user. Unlike a hand-held device, laptop computer, or PDA, it does not need to be opened up and turned on prior to use. The signal flow from human to computer, and computer to human runs continuously to provide a constant user interface.


Traditional computing paradigms are based on the notion that computing is the primary task. Wearable computing, however, is based on the notion that computing is NOT the primary task. The assumption of wearable computing is that the user will be doing something else at the same time as doing the computing. Thus the computer should serve to augment the intellect, or augment the senses.


Unlike hand held devices, laptop computers, and PDAs, the wearable computer can encapsulate us (Fig. 1c). It doesn't necessarily need to completely enclose us, but the concept allows for a greater degree of encapsulation than traditional portable computers. There are two aspects to this encapsulation:


It can function as an information filter, and allow us to block out material we might not wish to experience, whether it be offensive advertising, or simply a desire to replace existing media with different media. In less severe manifestations, it may simply allow us to alter our perception of reality in a very mild sort of way.


Mediation allows us to block or modify information leaving our encapsulated space. In the same way that ordinary clothing prevents others from seeing our naked bodies, the wearable computer may, for example, serve as an intermediary for interacting with untrusted systems, such as third party digital anonymous cash "cyberwallets". In the same way that some martial artists, especially kendoka, wear a long robe that comes right down to the ground, in order to hide the placement of their feet from their oponent, wearable computing can also be used to clothe our otherwise transparent movements in cyberspace. Although other technologies, like desktop computers, can help us protect our privacy with programs like Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), the Achilles' heel of these systems is the space between us and them. It is generally far easier for an attacker to compromise the link between us and the computer (perhaps through a so-called trojan horse or other planted virus) than it is to compromise the link between our computer and other computers. Thus wearable computing can be used to create a new level of personal privacy because it can be made much more personal; if it is always worn, except perhaps during showering, it is less likely to fall prey to covert attacks upon the hardware itself. Moreover, the close synergy between the human and computers makes it harder to attack directly, e.g. as one might peek over a person's shoulder while they are typing, or hide a video camera in the ceiling above their keyboard. Furthermore, the wearable computer can take the form of undergarments that are encapsulated in an outer covering or outerwear of fine conductive fabric to protect from an attacker looking at radio frequency emissions. The actual communications between the wearer and other computers (and thus other people) can be done by way of outer garments, which contain conformal antennas, or the like, and convey an encrypted bitstream.

Because of its ability to encapsulate us, e.g. in embodiments of wearable computing that are actually articles of clothing in direct contact with our flesh, WearComp may also be able to make measurements of various physiological quantities. Thus the signal flow depicted in Fig 1a is also enhanced by the encapsulation as depicted in Fig 1c. To make this signal flow more explicit, Fig 1c has been redrawn: in Fig 1d, the computer and human are depicted as two separate entities within an optional protective shell, which may be removed or partially removed if a mixture of augmented and mediated interaction is desired.

Six Attributes (Signal Paths) of Wearable Computing

There are six informational flow paths associated with this new human-machine synergy. These signal flow paths are, in fact, attributes of wearable computing, and are described, in what follows, from the human's point of view:

Unmonopolizing of the user's attention

(The Wearable Computer) does not cut you off from the outside world like a virtual reality game or the like. You can attend to other matters while using the apparatus. It is built with the assumption that computing will be a secondary activity, rather than a primary focus of attention. In fact, ideally, it will provide enhanced sensory capabilities. It may, however, mediate (augment, alter, or deliberately diminish) the sensory capabilities.

Unrestrictive to the user

Is ambulatory, mobile, roving; "you can do other things while using it". E.g. you can type while jogging, etc.

Observable by the user

Can get your attention continuously if you want it to; within reasonable limits (e.g. that you might not see the screen while you blink or look away momentarily) the output medium is constantly perceptible by the wearer.

Controllable by the user

One can grab control of it at any time you wish. Even in automated processes you can manually override To break open and enter the control loop at any time (e.g. a big HALT button, for use when an application mindlessly opens all 50 documents that were highlighted when you accidently pressed Enter, would make a computer more controllable). Infinitely-often-controllable: the constancy of user interface results from almost-always observability and infinitely-often controllability in the sense that there is always a potential for manual override which need not be always exercised. Attentive to the environment: it is environmentally aware, multimodal, multisensory. (this ultimately increases the user's situational awareness).

Communicative to others

Can be used as a communications medium when you want it to.


Allows the wearer to be expressive through the medium, whether as a direct communications medium to others, or as means of assisting the production of expressive media (artistic or otherwise). Implied by the above six properties is that it must also be:


Always on, running, and ready. May have "sleep modes" but is never "dead" (unlike a laptop computer, which must be opened up, switched on, and booted up before use). =====Personal: human and computer are inextricably intertwined.


You can adapt to it so that it acts as a true extension of mind and body; after time you forget that you are wearing it.


Resists, if you wish, prohibition or requests by others for removal. This is in contrast to a laptop, in briefcase or bag, that could be separated from you by the "please leave all bags and briefcases at the counter" policy of a department store, library, or similar establishment.


Others can't observe or control it unless you let them. Others can't determine system status unless you want them to, e.g. the clerk at the refund counter in a department store where photography is prohibited can't tell whether or not you are transmitting wireless video to a spouse for remote advice, in contrast to camcorder technology where it is obvious you are taking a picture when you hold the camcorder up to your eye. Note that a computer mediation device with sufficient bandwidth can synthesize or even heighten the augmentational aspects. For example a sufficiently attentive computer can sustain a sufficient illusion of being unmonopolizing that it could encapsulate the user and still provide the same experience as system running in the augmentational mode of operation. Similarly, a sufficiently communicative machine, especially if "machine" is broadened to include mechanical mediation devices such as motorized exoskeletons, can synthesize the unrestrictive attribute".

Modern Wearable Computing

Although the Internet is invisible and seemingly omnipresent, it is only accessible by two-dimensional interfaces on physical machines in connected fields. It has only been a recent occurrence that we’ve been able to carry around complex computational interfaces in our pockets, increasing technological capabilities into our everyday lives. Until this point, one had to be in a certain time and place in order to access computing power. This usually meant a college or university, and sometimes between the hours of 3 and 6 Am.


Evolution of Steve Mann's wearable technology system over time.

The first person to pioneer the idea of being able to compute anywhere and be connected was Steven Mann, the inventor of Wearable computing. He thought that humans should not contort to computers, but that computers should contort to humans. He wore 80 pounds of computing equipment, including a wireless uplink to an early manifestation of the Internet (MITs local Internet) starting in 1979. As time progressed, computing became lighter, and Steve Mann’s load became less burdensome while still retaining the same functionality. Similarly, computers have jumped from gymnasiums to desktops to pockets.

Steve Mann envisioned a future in which hardware could be downloaded in as easily as software. Where one’s contact lens prescription could change during the day based on one’s needs. A future where a device morphs is the most fluid and liquid that an interface can become. Interfaces today are limited by their external structure. This limitation will dissolve when the hardware dissolves.


WearCam: The Wearable Camera

Dr. Mann's WearComp invention dates back to his high school days in the 1970s and early 1980s, where he was experimenting with wearable computing and personal imaging as a personal hobby [4]. "Unlike other wearable devices (wristwatches, regular eyeglasses, wearable radios, etc.), a WearComp is as reconfigurable as the familiar desktop or mainframe computer. Unlike other computers (including laptops and PDAs), a WearComp is inextricably intertwined with its wearer - WearComp's "always ready" characteristic leads to a new form of synergy between human and computer" [5].

Evolution of WearCam

"Due to recent advances in miniaturization, the author's "wearable computer" invention of the late 1970s and early 1980s, comprising a backpack-based, tetherless computer system together with wireless communications, has been transformed from an awkward and cumbersome burden into a completely unobtrusive internet-connected multimedia computer built within an ordinary pair of eyeglasses and ordinary clothing. This transformation allows it to be worn constantly, with the goal of becoming a seamless extension of the body and mind. In addition to replacing one's cellular telephone, personal music system, dictating machine, pager, camcorder, laptop computer, PDA, and the like, with a single well-integrated unit, the apparatus can perform new and previously unexpected useful functions" [6].


EyeTap Display Diagram

EyeTap is a device which allows, in a sense, the eye itself to function as both a display and a camera. EyeTap is at once the eye piece that displays computer information to the user and a device which allows the computer to process and possibly alter what the user sees. That which the user looks at is processed by the EyeTap. This allows the EyeTap to, under computer control, augment, diminish, or otherwise alter a user's visual perception of their environment, which creates a Computer Mediated Reality. Furthermore, ideally, EyeTap displays computer-generated information at the appropriate focal distance, and tonal range. The figure below depicts and describes the basic functional principle of EyeTap. Note from the diagram that the rays of light from the environment are collinear with the rays of light entering the eye (denoted by the dotted lines) which are generated by a device known as the aremac. "aremac" is the word camera spelled backwards and is the device which generates a synthetic ray of light which is collinear with an incoming ray of light. Ideally, the aremac will generate rays of light to form an image which appears to be spatially aligned, and appears at with the same focus as the real world scene [7].

Fundamental operating principle of EyeTap

Rays of light which would have otherwise entered the eye are instead reflected by the diverter. The diverter is typically a double-sided mirror or a beamsplitter. These rays of light are collected by a sensor, typically a CCD camera. This camera data is processed, and the aremac redisplays the image as rays of light. The aremac (the word `camera' backwards), is a display device which is capable of displaying information at an appropriate depth. These rays reflect again off the diverter, and are then collinear with the rays of light from the scene. Thus the rays of light hitting the sceneward side of the diverter in a sense "pass through" the diverter by passing through the processor and aremac. The user perceives the virtual light. This virtual light can be either the same image, or a computer mediated version of the real world scene, since the virtual light is altered under computer control [8].

MyVu Goggles worn by Amber Case

MyVu Video Camera Glasses

MyVu (formerly MicroOptical) is a maker of mass market personal video goggles that are priced under $200 a pair. They're marketed as personal video viewers for iPods and other video players vs. being actual wearable computers.

MicroOptical Industrial Monocular Goggles (no longer made by MicroOptical (now MyVu)).

Monocular Displays

Monocular displays like Steve Mann and Thad Starner wear are still in the thousands of dollars and are generally used by the military.

Head-Mounted Computers and Displays

Head Mounted Computer Display

Example head-mounted 15" display with an information-aware display. The system features six-axis position tracker from Hillcrest Labs that allows one to operate a cursor with nearly pixel-for-pixel accuracy by just moving around your head when for example panning around a large image or a map. There is a highly targetted microphone that understands voice-commands where that allow one to zoom in on maps or images, launch specific applications, and open specific files.

Hardware Specifications

  • Second Generation Kopin Golden-i Motorola-branded Head-mounted Computer system
  • Processor: TI OMAP3530 clocked at 600MHz
  • Display: Kopin SVGA (800 x 600) liquid crystal micro display (LCD)
  • Networking: Bluetooth 2.0 WiFi
  • User interface: Includes speech recognition and motion sensing
  • Other: I/O -- 1 x USB Expansion -- microSD slot
  • Power: 1200 mAh battery provides more than eight hours of operation Weight -- 3 oz (85g)
  • Operating system: Windows CE

Video of this System

Future of Wearable Computers

The whole of the Internet is an invisible, 4th dimensional potentiality with portals of different sizes, shapes, and capabilities. The hardware determines the size of the portal, the connection determines the rate of information flow, and the software/web browser and the sites within that web browser determine the rate of information absorption into the mind. The rate of information absorption is dependant upon the format of the information presented. Wearable Computers will evaporate over time until they are no longer noticeable or are proper ubiquitous extensions of the self, as valuable and as iconic as sports cars and external transport structures for the physical body.

Wearable Computing Laboratories

Additional Reading

External Links


  1. Wearcomp.org Definition of Wearcomp.
  2. EyeTap.org Glossary entry on Wearcomp
  3. Adapted from Steve Mann's address [Wearable Computing as Means for Personal Empowerment http://www.eyetap.org/wearcam/icwc98/keynote.html] Keynote Address for The First International Conference on Wearable Computing, ICWC-98, May 12-13, Fairfax, VA. Originally found at EyeTap Glossary
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  6. [3]
  7. [4]
  8. [5]