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.

  • HMD: Scalar Corporation Teleglass
  • Video Converter: Sewell SW-4262, which was simply cheap and required only USB power. This is needed because the T3-A only takes a composite video in, so I need something to do VGA->composite.
  • Main Computer: Acer Aspire One, which we’ll pretend I’m running Linux on. It’s something I already had, and I was able to get a relatively cheap very extended battery for it (7400mAH for a netbook = 5 hours while uploading video).
  • Webcam: Brando USB Mini Web Cam II, which after combing the Internets, is the only webcam of any kind I can find that I could conceivably mount to my glasses, so it looks where I look. The video quality is amazing, too.
  • Microphone: Audio-Technica ATR3350, which is both very cheap and has great quality. Something I didn’t think about when obtaining it, but which I enjoy now, is the off switch– which lets me quickly disable audio streaming. It does use a battery, but luckily, it’s the kind you can take from an A23 battery, which means you can get them very cheaply.
  • External Battery: XPal XP18000, which isn’t strictly necessary; last week, however, Woot had a deal for these for less than $100– so less than 50% of the list price. It means that I have a netbook running on a total of more than 25 Amp-Hours of battery, which means I can use it approximately forever without recharging. Plus, it lets me charge USB things as well, and I can use it as an AC adapter for the laptop (so I only need one charger).
  • Internet Connectivity: Sprint MiFi. Yes, you could just use WiFi everywhere. There are a few advantages to this, though; for one thing, I can have every device on me on the same network, that does allow communication between devices (some wifi hotspots don’t), and I also have Internet that doesn’t depend on where I am. Plus, it cost one cent– Amazon sells them for that, with a new plan. Thus, worth it.
  • Carrier: REI Stoke 9– the link is to the larger and more expensive Stoke 19, but you get the idea. The Stoke 9 is about the size of a CamelBak, but it’s cheaper and roomier. I was originally going to store the computer inside a Scottevest Tropical Jacket, but found that the weight of the netbook– nearly 4.5 pounds, with the battery– overloaded the weight management system of the jacket, making it unwieldy to actually wear. The Stoke is small enough it fits essentially between my shoulderblades; if I throw the jacket over it, you won’t notice it. Plus, the Stoke has the same cable management system as a CamelBak would, allowing easy cable runs out of the pack and over my shoulders.
  • Input: My old iPhone 2G, running Air Mouse. Easy, and since I have the old iPhone (since I’ve upgraded), it was free. (Air Mouse really is quite a bit better than the alternatives, by the way.)

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!