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Wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann: Who watches the watchmen?

Armando Rodriguez | June 7, 2013
It's Tuesday afternoon, and I've come to the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California to speak to the University of Toronto professor about wearable technology and the ubiquity of surveillance. But now, instead of searching for answers, I'm searching for a key.

We're locked out. The room in which Steve Mann, the father of wearable computing, insists we do his interview is closed for the day, and Mann won't answer any questions until we get the door open. It's Tuesday afternoon, and I've come to the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California to speak to the University of Toronto professor about wearable technology and the ubiquity of surveillance. But now, instead of searching for answers, I'm searching for a key.

Mann and I skitter through the conference halls, anxiously asking Expo employees if they can help us locate our mystical MacGuffin. After a few minutes of searching, Mann finds someone from his staff who can unlock the room. But first we have to help move Mann's hydraulophone--a musical instrument of his own design that uses water to produce sound.

At least we get that problem out of the way.

After stashing away the instrument, I discover why Mann is so eager to show me his space: The mystery chamber provides a showcase of Mann's wearable computing inventions over the years. With palpable excitement, he walks me through the various forms of headgear he has developed since the early 1980s--long before Google Glass catapulted high-tech headsets into the mainstream conversation.

With a doctorate from MIT in hand, Mann has spent the better part of the past 30 years adapting computers, screens, and optics into wearable contraptions. His first prototype was similar to Glass in that it featured a glass prism situated over the wearer's eye, though the setup was strapped to a helmet, and ran on a 9-volt battery.

The EyeTap digital eyeglasses he wears during our interview are the same ones he had on when he was attacked at a McDonald's in Paris in July 2012. These glasses are directly attached to his head, and can't be removed without special tools. Mann explains that this particular pair represented the fourth-generation of his work, and that he's already working on the fifth generation of EyeTap, which will add a second camera and support 3D augmented reality.

I ask him what he thinks of Google Glass, and Mann maintains the critical position that he's expressed in previous interviews.

"I don't think they got it right," he says. "I think it's a generation-one glass, and we're at generation five now. Glass strains your eye and your optic nerve because you're always looking above the eye. The generation-two glass [he motions to a pair of wearables similar to the ones he has on], which the eye itself is the camera, gets rid of those problems."

A representative of the University of California, Santa Cruz interrupts our interview to ask Mann about the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society conference he's hosting at the end of the month. So I wander over to a set of mannequins near the exit. One of these dummies is wearing a pendant containing a black sphere that, according to Mann, can project virtual objects onto the real world.

 

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