Meet Steve Mann, father of wearable computing

Author: 
Marit Mitchell

Steve Mann, Electrical and Computer Engineering professor and father of ‘wearable computing’ has granted readers a rare glimpse behind the glass in a feature article for IEEE Spectrum Tech Alert.

In the profile, ‘Steve Mann: My 'Augmediated’ Life,’ Mann addresses the pros and pitfalls of embracing mediated reality, and what he’s learned over his 35 solid years of field testing.

As the concept of ‘augmented reality’ goes mainstream with Google’s high-profile Project Glass, Mann’s research gives us a taste of what millions may be in for in adopting the technology. Google Glass is an internet-enabled device that overlays digital information on what look like regular eyeglasses.

Mann says the project is much less ambitious than the computer-mediated vision systems he was building decades ago.

“I have mixed feelings about the latest developments,” Mann writes. “On one hand, it’s immensely satisfying to see that the wider world now values wearable computer technology. On the other hand, I worry that Google and certain other companies are neglecting some important lessons…my concern comes from direct experience.”

Mann touches on an apprehension already emerging in popular discourse around Google Glass—that early versions of his designs “marked [him] as a nerd”—and moves on to a substantial analysis of the display design decisions revealed so far

“Google Glass and several similarly configured systems now in development suffer from another problem I learned about 30 years ago that arises from the basic asymmetry of their designs, in which the wearer views the display through only one eye,” Mann writes. “Using lenses in this way forces one eye to remain focused at some set distance while the focus of the other eye shifts according to whatever the wearer is looking at, near or far. Doing this leads to severe eyestrain.”

As for the future, Mann predicts cameras will continue their forward creep into everyday gizmos, but whether the net result will be a gain or loss for humanity it’s too early to say.

The topic has been capturing imaginations across Canada and around the world;  Mann was recently featured in a CBC segment called ‘Google Glass is just the beginning.’

Expect the conversation to continue when Mann chairs the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, hosted by U of T June 27-29, 2013. This year’s conference tackles the social implications of wearable computing and augmented reality in everyday life.