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Photo of Thad Starner Private Eyes

If you can imagine a computer that acts almost like an auxiliary brain and can be worn as easily as a pair of eyeglasses, you'll be intrigued by the work of Thad Starner and his Wearable Computing Project shown on this story. Following the premier of the Scientific American Frontiers Special Inventing the Future, Thad, a self-styled cyborg, answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel. Here are viewers' questions and his answers.

Q How long do you think it will be until fashionable wearable computers will be available to the general public at a reasonable price?

A It really depends on the consumer. Many of the large computer manufacturers are just becoming aware of wearable computers, and many of them have not realized the importance of a "heads-up" display where you can see both the real and virtual worlds at the same time. Also, most laptop computers are designed to run on a battery for two hours (the length of the average plane flight) instead of all day like ours are. The public has to make the companies understand that there is a market for fashionable, comfortable wearable computers. After that, the technological obstacles will fall away. If I was a major manufacturer, I could make one of our current devices for about $500.

Provided the impetus is there for systems manufacturers, unobtrusive displays are as near as two years. If lower resolutions than VGA are acceptable, six months. We have some prototypes in our labs, but it is very much a chicken and egg problem with industry. This is why we are making public the MIT design on our web page:

Q Very good program! Where does one buy the equipment necessary to make such things? Very interesting, and I would like to try some of it too, if cost-effective.

A Information on where to buy complete systems can be found at the wearable computing web page at :

However, for a budget system, making your own is preferable. Many of the parts vendors are listed on the web site already, but shortly we'll have step by step instructions on how to make one for about the price of a notebook computer.

Q What is the cost and availability of "private eyes" eyewear? My wife is a Speech Pathologist. She thinks this system would be good for stroke patients, dementia and head injury patients. Many times they can't remember the who, what's and where's of their daily life, but can read. Of course I've simplified the situation a bit, but you get the idea. What do you think?

A The Private Eye costs about $750 without a driver board and $1200 with one. In my opinion, while the oldest, these are still the best HUDs and the cheapest at comparable resolution (90x35 text is readable on the 720x280 screen). The Phoenix Group, who have licensed the technology from Reflection Technology, is just now completing an order with us and should have more displays available shortly. Details on the web site ( as they become available.

If low power is not needed and lower resolution is adequate (40 columns of text), the virtual IO display is about $700 and takes a TV signal or a VGA display. These are bulkier and take over 10x the power, however. In some places, the virtual vision sport can still be found in the $200 price range, but again, lower resolution, higher power, and only takes TV signals.

For true (monochrome) VGA resolution and compatibility, Kopin, Virtual Vision, Virtual IO, Planar, Intervision, and several others offer products which can be found from the web site. Unfortunately, these are still pricey (in the $3000 range).

I've given some thought to the head injury and brain lesion cases and could see a simple wearable computer being a valuable aid. However, each case and person is different, so the efficacy would vary depending on the patient's injury, age, flexibility, and customization of the system.

There are many applications for wearable computing in the disabled community. In fact, a spin-off of an experiment Steve and I performed last year has enabled my (legally blind) grandmother to read again. While this is not the major thrust of our research, we certainly maintain contacts in the enabling technology community and encourage the wearables community to take this market into account.

At the bottom of the first page of our web site are pointers to enabling technology vendors as well as instruction on how to make the low vision reading aid previously described.

Q As a computer tech I see the wearable computer as a tool I won't be able to work without for referencing data for repairs and troubleshooting. My question much ram and disk space will be available with these portable units and are they modem capable?

A We are currently ordering the parts that will allow us to put a 100Mhz 586 with 20M of RAM and 4.2G of hard disk in about the size of a portable CD player. For communications, these systems have serial, parallel, and optional PCMCIA ports allowing us to hook up all sorts of devices. I often use my system to diagnose our servers.

As far as communication, this message was typed from my wearable over a wireless digital cellular modem (cdpd). The device I use is the Sierra Wireless Pocketplus which is a wireless digital and analog cellular modem as well as being a normal telephone modem. Throughputs over ftp are > 9600 baud and we have used it in Boston, NYC, Indianapolis, and Baltimore so far through Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile. Some problems, but it's just getting prevalent.

For communication on a building scale, a 2Mbps Wavelan unit may be more appropriate.

Your application has a lot of support from industry. For example, did you know the complete repair manual for a Boeing 777 weighs 2 tons? On a wearable, it becomes a 6 oz. hard drive!

Q I'm curious about reactions you might have received from folks seeing you with your gear on. What has been the evolution of your response? I ask because many disabled people I speak with have imagined a technical solution to their communications limits, yet don't want the devices to increase the already painful distance they experience from people. 'Who'd wants to hug a cyborg,' a disabled friend said to me after seeing Terminator-2 when I suggested that technology of that sort might help that person to walk or speak more clearly. That's an experience your group might have an angle on. Any thoughts?

A When I talk to inventors who work with the handicapped, the common theme is that the handicapped want to look like "everyone else," even when there is significant advantage to having special equipment. The advent of the Sony Walkman really changed the environment for these folks. Before the Walkman, wearing earphones was considered "odd." However, once everyone was already wearing earphones, it was "ok" to have audio devices for hearing enhancement, cognitive aids, directions, etc.

In a similar vein, most of my effort in the corporate sector go to encouraging companies to make wearables for general consumption, not niche markets. When wearables are seen as replacements to Walkmans, the price will drop and the social conventions will be there so that the handicapped will embrace it. However, the real battle will be convincing companies to leave hooks in for the handicapped market.

As far as social reaction to my equipment: Co-workers get accustomed to it very quickly. In fact, many of them no longer notice if I have the glasses on or not (I often hide them in my jacket whenever I have had recent press exposure). However, the biggest social backlash I have had is those who, when first seeing me, assume that I'm reading e-mail when I'm in a conversation with them. The standard reasoning is, since they can't see the screen, how would they tell? In truth, it is very easy to tell if someone is reading e-mail: watch his eyes scan back and forth. Nevertheless, I do use the wearable during conversation; up to 80% of my work day is spent in conversation. By taking notes on those conversations, I am sure to remember important dates and interesting ideas. Now that my colleagues understand this, they get insulted when I DON'T use the system. Since I can touch type on the Twiddler, I do not need to watch the screen carefully, but just be generally aware that the words are appearing in the right place. This enables me to look the other participant in the eye. Thus, the act of taking notes does not detract from the conversation (unlike the same act with paper and pencil!), and in many cases other members of a conversation are completely unaware of the process.

As far as the current hardware looking awkward, that is just a phase. Just as cellular phones went from huge "bricks" to watches, wearables are becoming smaller and less intrusive. Our research systems are precisely that, designed for research instead of mass production. Given all the different options that exist, from backpack supercomputers to business card sized PC's, the question becomes what does each individual want to carry?

Q Eventually, prior to marketing, you will need to field test your Private Eyes. How would one go about volunteering for such an assignment?

A The Private Eyes have been a commercial product since 1989. Manufactured by Phoenix Group and Reflection Technology, they currently cost ~750$ (display only-the price of a middle range monitor), though the price goes down significantly in bulk. Directions for making a machine are being tested for public use (watch the web site)

Q How do you get your books online? And do you think it's fair to use the wearable computers and reference books when taking tests? Because technically, isn't it cheating?

A Almost all books that are published these days are designed in electronic form before printing. This makes it extremely easy for publishers to make their libraries electronic. However, only a few have started experimenting in this medium.

Many textbooks used in MIT classes were published by MIT professors. These texts are often designed in LaTex, a formatting language made for communicating texts between academia and publishers. The professors simply mail me the sources for the book. Since I am familiar with LaTex from writing papers (it's not hard), I can not only read the book, but also make notes in the "virtual margins."

As far as cheating, I believe education should be about learning to utilize one's resources to the fullest. Testing should be on the individual armed with whatever resources he can bring to bear in the field. For some, it will be the a pencil and paper. Others it is a calculator or field manual. In my case it just happens to be a library.

Q I wonder if your equipment is heavy or uncomfortable to wear? Do you ever get a slight headache from your "auxiliary brain" like the Nintendo" Virtual Boy would occasionally do?

A The equipment is specially designed for comfort for each user. They are (as a rule) significantly lighter than laptop computers. My personal system is four years old, so I've had quite some time to experiment and find comfortable clothing. Instead of choosing to miniaturize my system, I keep adding more functionality as the technology improves (sound, video, net, gps, infared, etc.). So, while you won't see me wearing Steve's backpack, you won't see me wearing our new 12 oz. system either.

I don't get headaches from using the Private Eye. However, the Virtual Boy makes me "cross-eyed," even though the technology is basically the same. I believe this is because the Virtual Boy tries to make a two-eyed "immersive" environment in a one-size-fits-all package. To be specific, I think there is a convergence problem with these systems (for me) as well as variable focus issues (objects at different perceived depths should appear out of focus depending on which object is being attended). Probably fixable with enough technology, but I prefer one-eyed systems anyways.

Q How do the keys on the handheld keyboard work?

A They are just standard keys. You press one or more keys at the same time to type a letter or word. For example, there is a key for "a" and "b", but to get "." you press both "a" and "b" together. If I push Alt, Num (on the thumb), and "a" together I get "\alpha", LaTex for the Greek symbol. I achieve >50 words per minute this way.

Q People say there is a health risk of brain cancer in cellular phones. Is there any health risk in wearing a computer?

A Not that we know. Limits on power levels are determined by the FCC, and the technologies we use are significantly below this level. I could make an argument that eating a doughnut is more dangerous.

I believe there has been a recent study on the link between cellular phones and cancer which has shown the power levels are safe. I'm constantly watching the research in these areas. Needless to say, I have a vested interest in my health!

Q I am a sixth grader at Dana Hall, we have recently watched your movie in science class. How long does it take to send the message(s) of what the person's name is through the camera on the computer? How long does it take to sense who is approaching you?

A It depends on the system we're using. The most time consuming part of the process is finding the face. Currently this takes up to a minute, but we are working on improving this significantly. However, in the video, you might notice that Steve waited until Alan's face matched the outline in Steve's display, eliminating the need to find the face by machine. Once alignment is done, a face can be compared against 8000 others in about a second on a 486 class machine.

Q I am in a 6th grade science class my question is that you said that people are thinking of ways to invent other smaller wearable computers. Could you tell me more about how these will be built? Is it the same idea of the ones on "Inventing the Future"?

A This field is just starting, so it's really hard to accurately predict what will happen. However, I believe that many of the components will be similar to the ones in the show. The visual display will be in a pair of designer sunglasses, the microphone or speaker will be in an earbud or maybe an earring, the keyboard will be a few buttons in the belt, machine will be in a shoe, power storage might be in the other shoe (if we haven't figured out something more clever), and the internet connection will be woven into the pants. The various devices will be connected by a wireless network with a 2 meter range.

Upgrading your machine will involve buying a new component and sticking it in your pocket. Computing will become more like fashion with designer styles and brand names. I also believe the consumer will become more savvy in what the different components do and how computers can be used, which will change interfaces significantly.

Q Our general science class (grade 9) would like to know if there is any chance that you or one of the other wearable computer scientists might be able to visit our school and speak to us and demonstrate your computers?

A Thanks for the invite, but I'm in the middle of my general exams, which is really overloading me at present. In fact, I've had such little time recently that I'm writing this walking to dinner!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.