Looking for Something to Wear

Unlike some wearable computing scientists, I do not think I could turn myself into a “cyborg.” Audacious souls, they have taken to wearing computers every waking hour. They say the visors and wearable keyboards they don daily mediate or heighten their perception of reality. In other words, not virtual reality, hyper-reality. Add in wireless, and they are able to constantly troll the Internet for answers to questions in real-time. Steve Mann, the wearable computing pioneer, says that wearable computing allows him to filter out content, like billboards, signs and other advertising, that has been essentially thrust on him.

Some wearable computing scientists have been brave—or foolhardy enough to have even experimented with implantation. Our reluctance to quickly follow suit should not surprise wearable computing scientists and developers when many of us still resist putting on the sweaters that our moms used to try to get us to wear. Those of us still shy about laser eye surgery might get positively leery about wearing displays over the eyes. PDA wristwatches have not caught on. They are essentially just a different way of binding PDAs to our bodies, when a good holster or coat pocket will do for most people. As road warriors, we happily lug our laptops, PDAs and cell phones (or devices that have begun to converge some of those capabilities) to meeting after meeting, but voluntarily weighing oneself with the tools of a road warrior still tends to be more about business than pleasure. Research in Motion (RIM) would probably admit that they would like to have pushed their market share further out of the business community that is its mainstay.

When I was still in finance, I used to keep a RIM Blackberry on me all the time. Actually, my firm insisted on it. My wife says I used to check my Blackberry frenetically every 10 to 15 minutes or so (much like she does now that she herself has one). Now that I am out of finance, though, I try to keep less technology on my body. Of course, that probably makes me somewhat of a luddite, at least compared to other white collar professionals. Mann’s vision of how wearable computers can mediate and recapture our ownership of our physical space sounds appealing, but do the rest of us want to feel tethered to technology? What if we like technology’s ability to heighten our experience but do not want it to be obtrusive?

What kind of device is going to get us to wear or at least tote our computers more? The current center of portable “computing” seems to be the cell phone and its multi-function counterparts. To be enticingly wearable, a device has to be indispensable. The phone function alone makes it so for some people. We all love to talk. In Europe, they have extended the capabilities of cell phones to digital purchases so that you can, say, buy a soft drink from a vending machine. If something as quintessentially American as digital cash cannot entice us to wear, though, what else can?

Other developers have focused on the entertainment aspect. News headlines, sports scores and stock tickers first filled our cell phone screens. Now writers like Yoshi and Zuan Huang have experimented with SMS novels, while The Guardian newspaper has sponsored SMS poetry contests. Multimedia remains a bit of a holy grail. Music files are more than common, but now purveyors are trying to get us to watch videos on our cell phones. India’s “Bollywood” tried distributing its movie “Stop If You Can” to Bharti Tele-Ventures customers. Camera phones have been popular with photobloggers, and users have turned their iPods into devices for listening to homemade radio shows. (Apple continues trying to find ways to use its iPod to back into other markets). Usability, as part of form and function, are paramount: Jeff Hawkin’s Palm, not Steve Job’s Newton; Steve Job’s iPod, not earlier iterations of mp3 players.

Entertainment value powerfully incentives us to wear devices. Those who grew up on Sony, Nintendo, Sega and Xbox (and not on primitive video games like Pong) are essentially already used to being less tied day and night to some kind of microprocessor. They are less apt to have qualms to being tethered. MP3 players and gaming devices underscore that well, but they are not computers in the sophisticated sense. Our devices still have quantum leaps they can provide in the way we connect to each other; wireless gaming and Howard Rheingold’s “ad hoc” communities, where wireless capabilities facilitate social networking, are steps in the right direction. Yet the adoption of 24/7 computing will remain limited if corporations ignore interactivity and look simply to monopolize or push information on us. Consumers need devices that enhance their experiences, not ones that simply make device accessibility ubiquitous. Devices need to be simultaneously accessible and unobtrusive. Today’s modern soldier cannot exist on the battlefield without the vision enhancement, communications devices and armor that have become de rigueur, but they still take off their equipment when they gather in the mess hall (as we tragically saw in Mosul) or when they climb into their bunks.

Developers continue to make strides in “smart fabrics,” the process of essentially weaving microprocessors into clothing. In the meantime, what might us “non-cyborgs” be willing to wear? Cell phones that fit perfectly in our ears (bluetooth devices only get us partially there, because they require a device that should be extraneous). Eyeglasses that look and work like eyeglasses (or sunglasses), but instantaneously become information display screens when called up or needed. (Or maybe screens that clip on or flip down over our glasses?) Input systems, whether joystick, glove, keypad or voice (or Thad Starner’s “twiddler” device) that are convenient, not cumbersome. Modular components that allow us to quickly add—or subtract functionality, literally the way that we might layer our clothes to suit the weather. Computing that reacts to us the way weapons systems in a modern assault helicopter like the Apache turn and target with the turn of the head or a flick of the hand. Wearable computers that are reliable and not overly susceptible to viruses and spam, since computing needs to enhance experience, rather than distract from it, to be pervasive. But most of all? Devices that go beyond information and file storage to embrace interactivity in ways that will surprise us.

Technorati Tag(s) – technology, computers and Internet.

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2 responses to “Looking for Something to Wear

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