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Wearable Computing as Means for Personal Empowerment

Keynote Address for The First International Conference on Wearable Computing, ICWC-98, May 12-13, Fairfax, VA
Steve Mann
University of Toronto
Wearable computing facilitates a new form of human-computer interaction comprising a small body-worn computer system that is always on and always ready and accessible. In this regard, the new computational framework differs from that of hand held devices, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The "always ready" capability leads to a new form of synergy between human and computer, characterized by long-term adaptation through constancy of user-interface.

What is a wearable computer
Wearable computing will now be defined in terms of its three modes of operation and its six attributes.
Operational modes of wearable computing
There are three operational modes in this new interaction between human and computer: Wearable computing is a framework for enabling various degrees of each of these three fundamental modes of operation. Collectively, the space of possible signal flows giving rise to this entire space of possibilities, is depicted in Fig 2.

While individual embodiments of wearable computing may use some mixture of these concepts, the signal path depicted in Fig 2 provides a general framework for comparison and study of these systems. The signal paths typically each, in fact, include multiple signals, hence multiple parallel signal paths are depicted in this figure to make this plurality of signals explicit.

The six attributes (six signal paths) of wearable computing
There are six informational flow paths associated with this new human--machine synergy. These signal flow paths are, in fact, attributes of wearable computing, and are described, in what follows, from the human's point of view. Two additional attributes follow from these six, and are also associated with wearable computing. The six attributes of wearable computing are as follows:
  1. UNRESTRICTIVE to the user: ambulatory, mobile, roving, "you can do other things while using it", e.g. you can type while jogging, etc.
  2. UNMONOPOLIZING of the user's attention: it does not cut you off from the outside world like a virtual reality game or the like. You can attend to other matters while using the apparatus. It is built with the assumption that computing will be a secondary activity, rather than a primary focus of attention. In fact, ideally, it will provide enhanced sensory capabilities. It may, however, mediate (augment, alter, or deliberately diminish) the sensory capabilities.
  3. OBSERVABLE by the user: It can get your attention continuously if you want it to. Almost-always-observable: within reasonable limitations (e.g. that you might not see the screen while you blink or look away momentarily) the output medium is constantly perceptible by the wearer.
  4. CONTROLLABLE by the user: Responsive. You can grab control of it at any time you wish. Even in automated processes you can manually override to break open the control loop and become part of the loop at any time you want to (example: "a big Halt button you want as an application mindlessly opens all 50 documents that were highlighted when you accidently pressed "Enter" would make a computer more CONTROLLABLE. Infinitely-often-controllable: the constancy of user-interface results from almost-always observability and infinitely-often controllability in the sense that there is always a potential for manual override which need not be always exercised.
  5. ATTENTIVE to the environment: Environmentally aware, multimodal, multisensory. (As a result this ultimately gives the user increased situational awareness).
  6. COMMUNICATIVE to others: Can be used as a communications medium when you want it to. Expressive: allows the wearer to be expressive through the medium, whether as a direct communications medium to others, or as means of assisting the production of expressive media (artistic or otherwise).
Two additional properties that follow from the above are: Note that a computer mediation device with sufficient bandwidth can synthesize or even heighten the augmentational aspects. For example a sufficiently ATTENTIVE computer can sustain a sufficient illusion of being UNMONOPOLIZING that it could encapsulate the user and still provide the same experience as system running in the augmentational mode of operation. Similarly, a sufficiently COMMUNICATIVE machine, especially if "machine" is broadened to include mechanical mediation devices such as motorized exoskeletons, can synthesize the UNRESTRICTIVE attribute.
Fundamental issues of wearable computing
The most fundamental paradigm shift that wearable computing has to offer is that of personal empowerment. In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of this paradigm shift, some historical examples of tools of empowerment will now be described to place wearable computing in this historical context.
Historical context
In early civilization, individuals were all roughly equal, militarily. Wealth was generally determined by how many head of cattle, or how many "mounts" (horses) a person owned. In hand-to-hand combat, fighting with swords, each individual was roughly an equal. Since it was impossible to stay on a horse while fighting, horses provided little in the way of military power, so that even those too poor to afford to keep a horse were not at a tremendous disadvantage to others from a fighting standpoint.

It was the invention of the stirrup, however, that radically changed this balance. With the stirrup, it became possible to stay on a horse while fighting. Horses and heavy armour could only be afforded by the wealthy, and even a large group of unruly peasants was no match for a much smaller group of mounted cavalry. However, toward the middle ages, more and more ordinary individuals mastered the art of fighting on horseback, and eventually the playing field leveled out.

Then, with the invention of gunpowder, the ordinary civilian was powerless against soldiers or bandits armed with guns. It was not until guns became cheap enough that everyone could own one - as in the "old west". The Colt 45, for example, was known as the "equalizer" because it made everyone roughly equal. Even if one person was much more skilled in its use, there would still be some risk involved in robbing other civilians or looting someone's home.

The shift from guns to cameras and computers
In today's world, the hand gun has a lesser role to play. Wars are fought with information, and we live in a world in which the appearance of thugs and bandits is not ubiquitous. While there is some crime, we spend most of our lives living in relative peace. However, surveillance and mass media have become the new instruments of social control. Department stores are protected with security cameras rather than by owners keeping a shotgun under the counter or hiring armed guards to provide a visible deterrent. While some department stores in rough neighbourhoods may have armed guards, there has been a paradigm shift where we see less guns and more surveillance cameras.
The shift from draconian punishment to micro management
There has also been a paradigm shift, throughout the ages, characterized by a move toward less severe punishments, inflicted with greater certainty. In the middle ages, the lack of sophisticated surveillance and communications networks meant that criminals often escaped detection or capture, but when they were captured, punishments were extremely severe. Gruesome corporeal punishments where criminals might be crucified, or whipped, branded, drawn and quartered, and then burned at the stake, were quite common in these times.

The evolution from punishment as a spectacle in which people where tortured to death in the village square, toward incarceration in which people were locked in a cell, and forced to attend church sermons, prison lectures, etc., marked the first step in a paradigm shift toward less severe punishments. Combined with improved forensic technologies like fingerprinting, this reduction in the severity of punishment came together with a greater chance of getting caught.

More recently, with the advent of so-called "boot camp", where delinquent youths are sent off for mandatory military-style training, the trend continues by addressing social problems earlier before they become large problems. This requires greater surveillance and monitoring, but at the same time is characterized by less severe actions taken against those who are deemed to require these actions. Thus there is, again, still greater chance of being affected by smaller punishments.

If we extrapolate this trend, what we arrive at is a system of social control characterized by total surveillance and micro-punishments. At some point, the forces applied to the subjects of the social control are too weak to even justify the use of the word "punishment", and perhaps it might be better referred to as "micro management".

This "micro management" of society may be effected by subjecting the population to mass media, advertising, and calming music played in department stores, elevators, and subway stations.

Surveillance is also spreading into areas that were generally private in earlier times. The surveillance cameras that were placed in banks have moved to department stores. They first appeared above cash registers to deal with major crimes like holdups. But then they moved into the aisles and spread throughout the store to deal with petty theft. Again, more surveillance for dealing with lesser crimes.

In the U.K., cameras installed for controlling crime in rough areas of town spread to low crime areas as well, in order to deal with problems like youths stealing apples from street markets, or patrons of pubs urinating on the street. The cameras have even spread into restaurants and pubs - not just above the cash register, but throughout the pub, so that going out for pints, one may no longer have privacy.

Recently, electronic plumbing technology, originally developed for use in prisons, for example, to prevent all inmates from flushing the toilets simultaneously, has started to be used in public buildings. The arguments in favor of it go beyond human hygiene and water conservation, as proponents of the technology argue that it also reduces vandalism. Their definition of vandalism has been broadened to include deliberately flooding a plumbing fixture, and deliberately leaving faucets running. Thus, again, what we see is greater certainty of catching or preventing people from committing lesser transgressions of the social order.

One particularly subtle form of social control using this technology, is the new hands free electronic showers developed for use in prisons where inmates would otherwise break off knobs, levers, and pushbuttons. These showers are just beginning to appear in government buildings, stadiums, health clubs, and schools. The machine watches the user, from behind a tiled wall, through a small dark glass window. When the user steps toward the shower, the water comes on, but only for a certain time, and then it shuts off. Obviously the user can step away from the viewing window, and then return, to receive more water, and thus defeat the timeout feature of the system, but this need to step away and move back into view is enough of an irritant as to effect a slight behavioural modification of the user. Thus what we see is that surveillance has swept across all facets of society, but is being used to deal with smaller and smaller problems. From dealing with mass murderers and bank robbers, to people who threaten the environment by taking long showers, the long arm of surveillance has reached into even the most private of places, where we might have once been alone. The peace and solitude of the shower, where our greatest inspirations might come to us, has been intruded upon with not a major punishment, but a very minor form of social control, too small in fact to even be called a punishment.

These surveillance and social control systems are linked together, often to central computer systems. Everything from surveillance cameras in the bank, to electronic plumbing networks is being equipped with fiber optic communications networks. Together with the vast array of medical records, credit card purchases, buying preferences, etc., we are affected in more ways, but with lesser influence. We are no longer held at bay by mounted cavalry. More often than being influenced by weapons, we are influenced in very slight, almost imperceptible ways, for example, through a deluge of junk mail, marketing, advertising, or a shower that shuts off after it sees that we've been standing under it for too long.

While there are some (the most notable being Jeremy Bentham) who may argue that a carefully managed society results in maximization of happiness, there are others who argue that the homogenization of society is unhealthy, and reduces humans to cogs in a larger piece of machinery, or at the very least, results in a certain loss of human dignity. Moreover, just as nature provides biodiversity, many believe that society should also be diverse, and people should try to resist ubiquitous centralized surveillance and control, particularly to the extent where it homogenizes society excessively. Some argue that micromanagement and utilitarianism, in which a person's value may often be measured in terms of usefulness to society, is what led to eugenics, and eventually to the fascism of Nazi Germany. Many people also agree that, even without any sort of social control mechanism, surveillance, in and of itself, still violates their privacy, and is fundamentally wrong.

As with other technologies, like the stirrup and gunpowder, the electronic surveillance playing field is also being leveled. The advent of the low-cost personal computer has allowed individuals to communicate freely and easily among themselves. No longer are the major media conglomerates the sole voice heard in our homes. The World Wide Web has ushered in a new era of underground news and alternative content. Thus centralized computing facilities, the very technology that many perceived as a threat to human individuality and freedom, has given way to low cost personal computers that many people can afford. This is not to say that home computers will be as big or powerful as the larger computers used by large corporations or governments, but simply that if a large number of people have a moderate degree of computational resources, there is a sense of balance in which people are roughly equal in the same sense that two people, face to face, one with a 0.22 calibre handgun and the other with a Colt 0.45 are roughly equal. A large bullet hole or a small one, both provide a tangible and real risk of death or injury.

It is perhaps modern cryptography that makes this balance even more pronounced, for it is so many orders of magnitude easier to encrypt a message than it is to decrypt it. Accordingly, many governments have defined cryptography as a munition and attempted, with only limited success, to restrict its use, and some have even defined it as a munition.

Fundamental issues of wearable computing
The most fundamental issue in wearable computing is no doubt that of personal empowerment, through its ability to equip the individual with a personalized, customizable information space, owned, operated, and controlled by the wearer. While home computers have gone a long way to empowering the individual, they only do so when the user is at home. As the home is perhaps the last bastion of space not yet touched by the long arm of surveillance - space that one can call one's own, the home computer, while it does provide an increase in personal empowerment, is not nearly so profound in its effect as the wearable computer which brings this personal space - space one can call one's own - out into the world.

Although wearable computing, in the most common form we know it today (miniature video screen over one or both eyes, body worn processor, and input devices such as a collection of pushbutton switches or joystick held in one hand and a microphone) was invented in the 1970s for personal imaging applications, it has more recently been adopted by the military in the context of large government-funded projects.

However, as with the stirrup, gunpowder, and other similar inventions, it is already making its way out into the mainstream consumer electronics arena.

An important observation to make, with regards to the continued innovation, early adopters (military, government, large multinational corporations), and finally ubiquity, is the time scale. While it took hundreds of years for the stirrup to be adopted by the masses, and tens of years for guns to be adopted by the masses, the spread of computer technology must be measured in computer years. As the technology moves faster, the military is losing its edge. We are entering an era in which consumer electronics is surpassing the technological sophistication of some military electronics. Personal audio systems like the SONY Walkman are just one example of how the ubiquity and sophistication of technology feed upon each other to the extent that the technology begins to rival, and in some ways, exceed, the technical sophistication of the limited-production military counterparts such as two--way radios used in the battlefield.

Consumer technology has already brought about a certain degree of personal empowerment, from the portable cassette player that lets us replace the music piped into department stores with whatever we would rather hear, to small hand held cameras that capture police brutality and human rights violations. However, wearable computing is just beginning to bring about a much greater paradigm shift, which may well be equivalent in its impact to the invention of the stirrup, or that of gunpowder. Moreover, this leveling of the playing field may, for the first time in history, happen almost instantaneously, should the major consumer electronics manufacturers beat the military to raising this invention to a level of perfection similar to that of the stirrup or modern handguns. If this were to happen, this decreasing of the time scale over which technology diffuses through society will have decreased to zero, resulting in a new kind of paradigm shift that society has not yet experienced.

Aspects of wearable computing and personal empowerment
There are several aspects and affordances of wearable computing. These are: