Saturday, October 31 2009

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a fun personal project: I’ve been building a wearable computing rig.

I’ve been interested in wearable computing since about 1999 (I was 13), when a friend of my family gave me a subscription to MIT’s incredible Technology Review magazine; in one of the first issues I received, I read an article called “Cyborg Seeks Community,” (the article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, and I can’t find a free copy anywhere) about Steve Mann and his quest for a good wearable computer. I was fascinated by the project; remember that this is in the days before ubiquitous (indeed, the 802.11a and 802.11b standards, which were the first real WiFi to be put into consumer laptops, weren’t released until October of that year), or even reasonably-priced laptops. One would have to admit that his rig wasn’t the most beautiful thing ever built (or even a thing that would allow someone to walk, say, under power lines; check out the packet radio antenna sprouting from his head), but I was nonetheless immediately taken, and wanted to build my own. Unfortunately, the centerpiece of the project is naturally a head-mounted display, and with those costing many thousands of dollars at the time (indeed, most still do today), I had to set the project aside.

Fast forward 10 years. There are now consumer-level HMDs, developed for people to, among other things, watch movies on airplanes. Several companies, like Vuzix and MyVu sell pretty decent ones for a few hundred dollars– but they aren’t good for wearable computing purposes, since they have very low resolution (fine for movies, bad for text), and more concerningly, fully block both eyes– meaning that without adding a camera feed, you can’t see where you’re going. Not good. I kept hoping to find something good, however; after all, since decent monocular (thus not blocking both eyes) displays have been a few thousand dollars for years now, someone has to release something eventually.

A month or so ago, then, I saw a video released on YouTube: it featured a bicyclist with a moving map on an HMD. The HMD in that video, it turned out, was made by a Japanese company called Scalar, and was called the T3-A. A few (fairly amusingly badly translated) emails later, and I was able to obtain, for the amazingly low price of $230, a T3-A of my own.

Neat stuff, but a HMD does not a wearable computer make– so time to start hacking.

Today, I’ve actually built a full wearable computer, which I’m bringing with me to the half Halloween party, half science fair TechARTS DC, run by iStrategyLabs and their cohort of usual suspects. I’ll write more about this project– which I’ve dubbed my Gargoyle project, after the rigs in Snow Crash– in the future, but for now, I thought I’d give a brief parts list, and explain what I’ll be doing tonight.

All in all, it’s about $800 worth of parts, plus shipping– cheaper than many laptops, and infinitely more flexible. And as noted, you can do it for less, depending on your needs.

At TechArtsDC, then, I’m going to use this in Stephenson’s gargoyle way: I’m going to be glogging the event, or essentially, livestreaming with the camera pointed away from me, rather than toward. With any luck, you can see what I’ll see. I’ve gone to some lengths to make sure that both random desktop viewers and iPhone people can see the video stream (either is easy, both is surprisingly difficult; no, UStream or Justin.TV don’t work, the former because if you aren’t “featured” the iPhone users can’t see you, and the latter because there’s no iPhone client); this means that anyone going to tonight can see the stream, if and when I’m uploading. I’ll probably turn it on around 8PM EST.

Where from here? Well, there’s software I’m writing to give the computer a better interface (more on that in another blog post, but if you’re curious, check out ExoCortex), and in addition, I want to be able to use the camera stream to recall past events; ideally, I could search back in my video “mind” for things people have said, and replay those events. Some of that technology just needs to be put together in the right way, but it’s around already; more, no doubt, later.

In general, I see the Gargoyle as an ongoing research project, and one that I think will be fun, in addition to getting me strange looks around town (always a side benefit). So next time you see a wannabe-Borg, say hi!

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