How Wearable Computers Can Change the World for the Better

When Google Glass was getting lots of buzz a few years ago, it was the first time many of us had ever thought about wearable computers. A computer that’s attached to your face and integrated with your vision? It seemed like the tipping point of technology, a harbinger of a new era when computing would be tied seamlessly into our words and movements, even our thoughts.

Wearable Computers pbs rewire
Thad Starner, Google Glass developer and wearable tech pioneer, talks about the past and future of wearables (while he uses Google Glass) at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Photo by Katie Moritz.

But wearable computers aren’t actually new. Our generation has grown up using wearable technology without thinking about it that way, said Thad Starner, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor who helped develop Google Glass. Throughout the years, you’ve always had your Discman, your mp3 player and, today, your smartphone with you. And even the now-taken-for-granted smartphone is a constantly improving fashion accessory.

A brief history of wearable computers

Starner has been building wearable computer prototypes since 1990. Here he is in a 1999 news segment that features “a 21st-century fashion show… where computers are part of your wardrobe and being connected takes on a whole new meaning.” Another developer promises a “tsunami wave of wearables coming onto the market,” even before the new millennium hit. (This clip is worth watching for the ’90s runway fashion alone.)

At that time, Starner’s portable computer weighed about one pound and he controlled it with a handheld keyboard “the size of a small cellphone.”

Since then, of course, technology has shrunk down to sometimes impossibly small proportions. But Starner makes a case for sleek, integrated technology.

Bringing technology closer to the body actually gets it out of the way,” he said during his talk on wearables at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.

Wearable Computers rewire pbsHaving access to wearable technology also gets us as close to having real superpowers as currently possible, Starner said. When our online tasks are taken out of our hands and put right in our line of sight, it makes us super efficient, he said. Messaging between coworkers and friends (especially if you’re sitting in the same room) is like telepathy; online searching is like omniscience; remote sensing is like far-seeing.

“Once you make it fast and fluid and easy to do, it becomes much more like a superpower,” Starner said.

For example, he uses his Google Glass to get more out of tours of dark cathedrals when he’s traveling and visiting historic sites. With the technology’s help, he’s able to see details he wouldn’t otherwise.

“If I turn on the camera, it actually sees the paintings better than I do,” he said.

More than a fashion accessory

Wearable computers are more than just sophisticated messaging devices—this technology also has the potential for social good.

Google Glass can be used by people who are hard of hearing as a live captioning device through an app called Captioning on Glass, which Starner helped develop. The person who is hard of hearing wears the glasses and the person they’re talking to speaks into a smartphone enabled with the app and connected wirelessly to the glasses. The smartphone will instantly transcribe what was said into it (just like Siri) and the words will appear on the Google Glass screen for the person who is hard of hearing to read as they have their conversation.

Jim Foley is a scientist who developed the field of computer graphics and teaches at Georgia Tech. He’s now hard of hearing and wears hearing aids and reads lips, Starner said. He uses Google Glass captioning to augment the hearing aids.

“This idea of we can make these augmented technologies something that actually keeps the speed of conversation going so there’s as little friction with the disability is really key,” Starner said.

Wearable tech can also help people who are unable to use their voices—either because of cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease, for example—but are able to move their mouths and tongues.

“We can recognize phrases of speech by putting a… magnet in a tongue piercing, and as the tongue moves we can actually pick up the movement using a magnetometer,” Starner said.

Wearable Computers rewire pbsJust like your tongue helps you make certain sounds by moving it in different ways, the movements themselves can be translated into common words and phrases. Don’t worry, the same can be done without a tongue piercing—specially made earbuds can be used to sense jaw movements. Those jaw movements can be matched with words and phrases. Try saying “algorithm” with your fingers in your ears. Can you feel your jaw moving? Your jaw moves differently depending on the words you’re saying, and that’s what the earbuds pick up on.

For most people, music is an important part of life—no matter what genre you’re into, listening to it just makes you happy. And many of the people who love music would also love how to learn how to play it, but feel like they don’t have time. Starner developed gloves that can help you learn how to play simple tunes on the piano without ever touching the keys, and while doing other things, like writing emails or watching TV.

The gloves send little vibrations to your fingers in the order you’d touch the keys if you were actually practicing the song at a piano. The vibrations play over and over while you go through your day. After as little as half an hour, you’d be able to pluck out the tune. Sound too good to be true? Take a look at this demo:

“Having these sorts of abilities rapidly available to you really turns them into more like super powers,” Starner said.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.