Beginnings : Steve Mann

When Steve Mann began strapping a series of cumbersome electronics to his body in the late 1970’s, most people thought he was mad. Many crossed the street to avoid him and (in his own words), he was “marked as a nerd.” People were genuinely scared by the sight of a modern-day cyberman strolling through the streets of Toronto. None of them realised they were looking at the future of personal computing.

Mann knew, thirty-five years before everyone else, that “the future of computing was as much about people wearing computers, as it was about performing colossal calculations.” He also sensed, that he was experimenting with that future.

This insight, drove him to spend three decades building and perfecting hundreds of prototypes. In the process, he invented much of the landscape we now entering and blazed a path that many would follow.

Mann prototyped and designed two of the current stars of wearable computing, head-mounted eyeglasses and wearable wrist-bourne computers. Both of these categories are now being touted as technology’s next big thing.

“Traditional computing paradigms are based on the notion that computing is the primary task,” says Mann. “Wearable computing, however, is based on the idea that computing is NOT the primary task.”

Today, Mann is Chief Scientist at Meta a Canadian start-up, creating a product called “Spaceglasses” an augmented and mediated reality headset.  He sees himself as an explorer of new sensory modalities.

He is now widely viewed as the founding father of wearable computing and his ideas are influencing a generation of technologists. They will likely resonate further, as wearables enter the mainstream.



Entering the Mainstream

New wearables are emerging in the marketplace almost daily. The entry of both Google and Apple, confirms that 2014 will be marked as watershed year, one when the world-at-large finally began to explore the new frontier of wearable computing.

Today, we are in the early chapters of that future. It is the story of how we are increasingly augmenting ourselves with machines. It is the story of the cyborg.

The products we have seen so far are the tip of a convergence iceberg. One being brought about by exponential increases in computational power, shrinking circuit sizes, advances in materials science and falling production costs. These developments will inevitably lead to smaller and more powerful devices. An era of ubiquitous wearable technology will quickly follow.

This new age will involve a myriad of miniaturised marvels. Computers that disappear, vanishing into our everyday objects: watches, glasses; jewellery, clothing; shoes, headbands; underwear and much more. The sensors and circuits in these items, will invade every aspect of our lives. Eventually, they will enter our bodies.

Wearables will map our locations, biological functioning and our visual and auditory histories. They will remember the things we forget and aid us in understanding ideas. They will enable new forms of augmented reality, self-expression, art and creativity and add a layer of tactility and gestural interactivity to our connected lives.

Generation 1.0

Google’s Glass has already enjoyed significant eyeball attention as a poster child for this new wave. It is only a prototype, a generation 1.0 product, pointing the way towards a rapidly advancing future. Miniaturization is moving us from a past where computers were separate objects, towards a world where we engage in truly synergistic relationships.

Smartwatches, such as the one unveiled by Apple, give some indication of where the technology is leading us. Iterating on the current capability of our smartphone’s and adding a layer of tactile feedback. There is much more coming.

Replacing your door key and credit card are interesting capabilities, but pale into insignificance when we imagine what our wearables will be doing for us in the future. Monitoring exercise, calories, activity levels and heartbeats are small steps on the road to a future, where the collection of personal metrics will reach a level we can barely imagine today.

The data generated, will be stored on gigantic server farms, it will provide the most powerful and intimate records of living human beings that have ever been assembled. The ubiquity of the cloud will grow. Privacy issues and debates about who has access to our information will intensify.

It will be both challenging and exciting. Many issues of concern will arise.


Wearable Futures

In the near-future, it is probable that your clothes will be able to change their pattern and colour to reflect your mood, role, or intimacy with others. They will store the sights, sounds and touches of your daily life. Software programs will interact with this data in new and meaningful ways and the information they offer will be deeply contextual and highly personal. Your eyeglasses and earbuds will selectively augment or diminish your senses. The network will respond intuitively. Much of what it does, you will never need to ask for.

Beyond the near-term, digital tattoos, an electronic epidermis, bionics and implantable and embeddable circuitry await. The implications, both for who we are and what we may become are profound.

To any generation that preceded this one, our abilities will border on the superhuman. Yet they will become commonplace. The machines we wear, will be more than machines – they will become a direct technological extension of our central nervous systems. A digital epidermis, that we will not be able to imagine living without.

The cyborg age is arriving. It is an age full of marvels and wonders and perhaps also, fears and troubles. The Apple Watch and Google’s Glass are merely precursors to that age, the first tentative steps upon the road. They remind us both of a time before and give us a brief glimpse forwards, into our kaleidoscopic wearable future.

Welcome to the age of the wearable machine.

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