Wearable computer hints at ways we might live digitally

Every year the TED conference introduces new and provocative ideas, many of which soon become commonplace. Two years ago, Jeff Han’s demonstration of multi-touch screens presaged the Microsoft Surface, and the first mass-produced multi-touch cell phone: the iPhone. These multi-touch screens are many things, but unencumbered is not an adjective that comes to mind.

Even the iPhone requires you to hold a cell phone, which is a barrier for a lot of real-world applications. MIT Media Lab’s Pattie Maes explained the challenge at the latest TED conference. She said that, for instance, “If you are in the toilet tissue aisle of your supermarket, you don’t take out your cell phone, open a browser and go to a web site when you want to know which is the most ecologically sound toilet tissue to buy.” She and Pranav Mistry, also of MIT’s lab, have devised a potential solution to accessing this type of rich information in the real world. They call call this sort of computer interface their Sixth Sense. Here is the video of the computer demo.

The demonstration had the audience on their feet, cheering.

Here are three things I love about this concept, as crude as it currently is:

  1. It’s cheap, light and small
  2. It can very quickly become cheaper, lighter and smaller
  3. With video recognition, the need for colored finger-markers will be unnecessary (so will logging in, since it will recognize its owner’s unique fingertips from anyone else’s)

Wearable computers have been talked about for decades, but this is the first user interface that is starting to make sense to me.

When Jeff Han’s concept of multi-touch computer interfaces was presented two years ago, my blog post was effusive about the possibilites. Someday we might be able to work standing up — more prone to both creativity and collaboration (please excuse the obscure pun). The biggest barrier to this future was that darned wall-sized screen. With the Sixth Sense device, any white wall becomes a screen — and an inviting whiteboard for one or more knowledge workers to play in.

Do you agree that this crazy contraption has a lot of possibilities?

3 thoughts on “Wearable computer hints at ways we might live digitally”

  1. I agree that this has a lot of possibilities, though I don’t know how many will be practical outside of the academic design stages. Projecting onto projects was great, I think that could be one of the best uses. Some of the multi-finger things were pretty cool but I don’t think a portable worn projector was the best method of implementation.

    Overall, I really loved this talk too. I hope that they can keep refining their product and inspiring others to continue in this realm.

  2. I watched this about a week ago and was fairly blown away by what they’ve achieved so far. Sure, it seems crazy that people would wear something like what she had on or put pen caps on their fingers, but as she points out, this isn’t something we should be looking for in a practical format until years from now. When it is here, it’ll be very cool and useful. I’ve gotta say though, that the projecting part seems like a hindrance -and easily an annoyance to those around you. Something would need to be created to keep the visuals to yourself. Or, if collaboration is the goal, a shared signal could be transmitted into each persons visual, whatever it may be.

  3. Thanks, Sam and Ben. You both bring up very real limitations.

    Those will have to be engineered out before this can be something people would embrace. And I can’t even imagine how they would solve some of these issue, especially Ben’s problem with projection (how to keep them private and how to share them when appropriate).

    But over the months and years, this is definitely going to be a fun technology to watch!

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