Last week I attended a conference on wearable computers. Wearable computers? We’re just getting used to the blank screens and large, heavy plastic boxes stuffed with mysterious circuitry that occupy our desktops. Now imagine having your computer with you everywhere you go – at the train station, at dinner, in the shower — a floating screen of information continuously accessible with a simple, casual sideways glance into the corner of your glasses.
The idea tends to provoke two opposite reactions. Science fiction fans, geeks, Trekkies, mobile phone owners and jet-setting businessmen become excited and garrulous; the rest of us roll our eyes and ask for a break. When asked why, we reply that personal computers have become rather demanding. For me, the invention of e-mail did reinvigorate the art of letter-writing, obviate the need to make a lot of phone calls and make it easier for me to send this column from New York to London. But, at the same time, my e-mail in-box has attained the status of an out-of-control Tamagotchi pet. Leave it unattended for a few days and it becomes monstrous and unmanageable. For some reason, the idea of having to spend my lunchtime walk in the park filtering out junk mail from the computer screen permanently mounted in my contact lens has a limited appeal.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Wearables conference, however, such quibbles were swept aside. Computers that stay with you all day, that are “absorbed into your notion of self”, according to Alex Pentland, MIT’s Toshiba professor of media arts and sciences, are not a dream – they are “inevitable”.
Looking around the throng of geeks, Trekkies and businessmen during coffee break, I realised that a number of them were already wearing their computers. One MIT graduate student was sporting a pair of glasses that incorporated a tiny LCD display in the lens, connected to a backpack processor. Others were wearing jackets embroidered with circuitry that responded with sample drum beats and electronic noises at the touch of a fingertip.
The most recognisably practical side to wearable computing is its application in professional fields. The aircraft manufacturers Boeing and McDonnell Douglas are expecting to shortly deploy a camouflage vest containing a low-voltage, voice-operated Pentium computer among its assembly and maintenance workers. Attached to a head-mounted electroluminescent display, this wearable computer will provide workers with diagrams and schematics that conventionally would have been carried around in heavy manuals. In the medical field, meanwhile, where wearable sensors are already used to monitor the bodily functions of astronauts, MIT’s professor of electrical engineering John Wyatt explained his plans to test in December a retinal stimulator chip. A minute flexible circuit will be briefly attached to the human retina to restore a limited amount of vision in a patient with degenerative blindness.
Back in the auditorium, the host of the proceedings turned out to be none other than Leonard Nimoy, the inimitable Vulcan of the Starship Enterprise. At one point Spock, I mean Nimoy, was asked to help demonstrate the authenticity of a diamond-encrusted brooch embellished with a line of rubies that pulsed bright red in time with the beats of the wearer’s heart. The brooch was attached to the dress of a tall, glamorous woman, and Nimoy was ushered in to kiss her. “Do you know anything about Vulcans?” he asked her gravely, before planting his professional lips on hers for a good 20 seconds in front the camera crew. The Trekkies looked confused.
Mostly, this was a day of geek indulgence. There was talk of data transfer through a human handshake, with the body conducting information from a tiny chip in the sole of the shoe. There were plans for a quantum computer and circuit boards tattooed into the skin. Spock even enthused about a steering wheel that could sense when you were angry.
The most sober note came from veteran science fiction writer, Frederik Pohl. Perhaps, he said, we might one day go to a funeral and be handed an edible capsule that contained a virtual representation of the friend who had died. On demand, Pohl suggested, we would be able to conjure them up on to our wearable screens, and “never really lose them”. It suddenly seemed possible that Pohl was, in fact, using the example to illustrate how much more powerful and flexible is the human memory at recalling lost friends in the mind’s eye. Wearable computers? We already have ’em.