Section 4.6. Convergence


4.6. Convergence

Of course, the ultimate convergence will happen even closer to home as the human body becomes an environment for computers. The first big step in this corporal merger is wearable computing, an area of active research at many of the world's leading universities. Steve Mann, a pioneer in the field, has been working on WearComp for more than 20 years, with results shown in Figure 4-18. It now looks like his dedication is about to pay off. Wearable computing is disappearing into the fabric of life, becoming ubiquitous and invisible.

Figure 4-18. The evolution of Steve Mann's wearable computer


For instance, Xybernaut's wearable computing platform is already being used by aircraft mechanics and engineers at Federal Express, Boeing, and the U.S. Department of Defense to dramatically improve mobile worker productivity. And in the consumer realm, Motorola recently announced a deal with Oakley to create wearable wireless glasses (to be used in combination with cell phones and MP3 players) and a separate venture with Burton to build Bluetooth-enabled jackets and headgear for skiers and snowboarders. Motorola's vision is to enable "seamlessly mobile wireless communications anywhere and everywhere consumers want to be."[*] One example from Philips is shown in Figure 4-19.

[*] "Motorola, Oakley Team to Make Wearable Wireless" by Keith Regan. E-Commerce Times, January 21, 2005.

Figure 4-19. New Nomads by Philips


Beyond the ability to check email while skiing down a mountain, one of the more interesting applications of WearComp is the capture of life experiences. In the MyLifeBits project, a team at Microsoft is exploring the mix of hardware, software, and metadata tags necessary to store and retrieve everything we see, hear, and read. Based on success with wearable prototypes that integrate cameras, sensors, and terabyte hard drives, the researchers predict that "users will eventually be able to keep every document they read, every picture they view, all the audio they hear, and a good portion of what they see." They expect terabyte drives to be common and inexpensive (<$300) by 2007. In addition to serving as digital scrapbooks and photo albums, these wearables will provide memory augmentation, helping us recall the name of the person we just met. This idea of personal video capture is nothing new to Steve Mann who "built the world's first covert fully functional WearComp with display and camera concealed in ordinary eyeglasses in 1995." His vision of inverse surveillance has recently taken on new life under the label of sousveillance, which means in French "to watch from below." In a backlash against government and corporate surveillance, growing numbers of citizens are donning wearables to watch the watchers, a trend toward the "reciprocal transparency" that David Brin explores in The Transparent Society.[*]

[*] The Transparent Society by David Brin. Perseus (1998).

But we shouldn't get too hung up on wearable computing, which is really only a stepping stone on the path to cybernetic transformation. Despite our uneasy relationship with such terms as "cyborg" and "transhuman," the convergence of mechanical, electronic, and biological systems is well underway. For instance, Stephen Hawking has a progressive neurodegenerative disease called ALS that has rendered him physically unable to walk or talk. And yet, he is able to live a productive and rewarding life as a husband, father, and preeminent physicist. He does so with the help of a customized wheelchair with an onboard laptop with cellular and wireless devices, a universally programmable infrared remote control for opening doors and operating consumer electronics, a speech synthesizer, and a handheld input device with one button. It is this single button and the equipment behind it that connects Stephen Hawking to his family, his colleagues, and the global Internet. With respect to his personal experience and his contributions to society, man and machine have been intertwingled. And he is not alone. Consider the following:

  • About 78% of Americans have had an amalgam of copper, silver, and mercury permanently implanted in their bodies. We call them fillings.

  • More than 60,000 people worldwide have had cochlear implants surgically embedded to compensate for damaged or non-working parts of the inner ear.

  • In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the country's first radiofrequency identification chip for implantation into patients in hospitals. The intent is to provide immediate positive identification. The tags are injected into the fatty tissue of the upper arm. Their estimated life is 20 years.

  • A company in Israel has developed an ingestible "camera-in-a-pill" which obtains color video of the gastrointestinal tract as it passes through the body. And Mini Mitter in the U.S. sells a core body temperature monitor that features ingestible capsules that communicate wirelessly with the outside world.

  • New video games with wireless headsets allow players to control the action with their brain waves. And scientists at Duke University have built a brain implant that lets monkeys control a robotic arm via the Internet with their thoughts.

In the realm of implants and ingestibles, fact is stranger than fiction. We've already stepped onto the slippery slope of corporal convergence. As technology relentlessly increases the angle of inclination, direction can be assumed, while distance and velocity remain in question. Healthcare supplies the wedge for early adoption. Who wants to fight against lifesaving technologies? Fun and fashion will carry them from hospital to high school, as ringtones and belly rings intertwingle themselves into the bodies of teenagers. The conspicuous consumption of cybernetics will drive parents crazy, though it will be what's hidden that keeps us up at night. But eventually, we'll reach a techno-cultural tipping point, and convergence will go mainstream. Will we be chipped at birth? Will it become illegal to live implant-free? How far will we go? Only time will tell. Our destination lies shrouded in fog, but our direction is clear. We're on the yellow brick road to ambient findability, and we've got magic slippers to help us find our way.