Wearable tech comes of age: Steve Mann
The father of wearable tech on google glass, and living in a world where humans have the same rights as buildings.
T3: When did you start creating wearables?
Steve Mann: My grandfather taught me to weld when I was just four years old, and I became interested in being able to see better, over a wide range of light levels. This is what led me to the invention of Digital Eye Glass (wearable computing) and HDR (High Dynamic Range) Imaging (see wearcam. org/hdr.htm).
I was always looking for a place where I could combine my talents in art, science, technology, mathematics, and inventrepreneurship (inventorship and entrepreneurship). I ended up getting accepted at MIT so I brought much of my wearable computing with me. I was my own walking laboratory, TV station and photographic studio.
T3: How was it received at MIT in the 1970s? The ideas must have been fairly forward-thinking.
SM: Certain others were initially opposed to my new concepts, and wearable computing in general, but later took these ideas as their own, by publishing my Sixth Sense and Wearable Computing work without any attribution.
T3: Did you ever envisage then that the tech industry would be following behind you in 2014/15?
SM: Yes, I did envision that industry would catch on to these ideas of HDR Imaging, Wearable Computing and Humanistic Intelligence.
I was a bit disappointed by some of the results of the tech industry, and how long it took the industry to catch on. In the 1970s, I envisioned a convergence of PC, camera, and phone into something that could be worn, and I embodied it as a viewfinder in the upper right-hand corner of my vision. By 1998 I came up with a more sleek and slender eyeglass.
T3: Just like Google Glass then. Was Google aware of this?
SM: From early on, while still at MIT, I'd shown my work to Mark Spitzer who founded MicroOptical, making eyeglasses after my early 1990s eyeglass-based wearable computer, but he didn't include any camera, or see the need for it. I explained to him the importance of having a camera – for example to do AR, so it would be more than just a display – and he eventually caught on to some of the more important ideas of computer-mediated reality I was working on. Then Google purchased his company.
T3: But Google must have blown your technology away, right?
SM: When Google was trying to come out with its product it hired some of my students and were probing around my work, and came up with a design quite similar to my 1998 system, but with the essential form of my 1970s embodiment – the little viewfinder.
T3: So how would you rate Google's effort?
SM: I thought that being a big company they'd come up with something more advanced.
It was kind of funny in 2014, when I was wearing my 1998 EyeTap, people would say “Is that Google Glass?” and I'd have to remind them it was a project I'd completed before Google even existed.
T3: And did you think Google Glass would fail?
SM: I predicted the downfall of Glass as a product in my IEEE Spectrum article in 2013. I came to realise that the industry wouldn't 'get it right' unless I took a more active role, so this is where my work in inventrepreneurship started to take on some importance. We just raised $23 million in a Series A investment round for Meta Spaceglasses, as I think that it's very important for inventors to be involved along the entire flow from idea to product.
The kind of vision needed to create new inventions is also integral to product design.
T3: You've been photographed with and used some fairly obtrusive wearables. Have you received extreme negative reactions?
SM: What I noticed is that while the early peer opposition subsided, most of the remaining opposition came from businesses such as restaurants and department stores. Ironically, the more surveillance they had in their business, the more scared they were of someone wearing a camera.
T3: Why should we wear cameras on our faces and bodies?
SM: A person is responsible for their actions. With those increased responsibilities, a person ought to be allowed to see, and to remember what they see. It's quite absurd, really, that buildings and cars are always allowed to 'wear' cameras but people sometimes are not. My children say that they hope to live in a world where human life is no longer valued as less important than the well-being of cars and buildings.