[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 3.26.2000]

Being Steve Mann: Cyberwear
pioneer alters his reality

By Jay Bookman
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Steve Mann can sound strange.

"For two years, I had 30,000 people inside my head, watching what I did every day, altering my reality, offering suggestions on what I should do next," recalls the University of Toronto professor. "I finally had to shut it down, though. My head space got a little too crowded."

No, Mann's not crazy. From 1994 to 1996, while a grad student at MIT in Boston, he streamed live video directly onto the Internet from a device that was mounted on his head. Everything Mann saw and heard during his day, visitors on his Web site could see and hear as well. The experiment allowed Net users to literally view the world as Mann experienced it. From their computers, they could also communicate directly with Mann, which gave him a rather odd ability. As he went about life, he could benefit from the combined brainpower and experience of those looking over his shoulder via the Internet.

"I could recognize people I had never met, recognize buildings I'd never seen," says Mann, now 38. "If I was in a store, somebody [on the Internet] might tell me, 'Hey, I went to high school with that clerk right there,' and then tell me her name."

Mann began building his own wearable systems as a high school student in the late '70s, and he has continued that work at MIT and now at Toronto. At MIT, Mann worked with a fellow grad student, Thad Starner, who's now running a wearable computing project at Georgia Tech.

The standard configuration of wearable systems offers full-time wireless Internet access, a cell phone and e-mail, but Mann professes a certain boredom with those mundane applications. He wants to push the scientific, intellectual and philosophical boundaries of the technology.

He began tinkering with wearables out of "a desire to create some personal space and a personal interpretation of reality," he says. In elementary school, that desire for "personal space" led him to cobble together an early version of a Walkman out of headphones and a car stereo tape player, so that he could walk down the street listening to sounds of his own choosing, rather than those imposed on him by others. His early wearable systems consisted of audio and video processors that allowed him to record, alter and play back what he saw and heard around him.

Mann's current "eyetap" system is an update of the system he built and wore in the MIT experiment. Its most visible component are his dark sunglasses, which aren't really glasses at all. They act more like a blindfold because they block entirely his view of the world around him.

Mann can still see, but only indirectly. Two electronic devices - one mounted on each side of his glasses - transmit video of the outside world onto the Internet. Mann's on-board computer in his clothing then picks up that image from the Net and projects it by laser directly onto his retinas. He's not seeing the world around him; he's seeing a streaming video of that world.

He can play around with that image. For example, he can almost literally give himself an eye in the back of his head by mounting a camera pointed in that direction. If Mann wants to see what's going on back there, he can access that backward feed and play it on his retina.

By adjusting his lenses, he can lighten images, allowing him to "see" objects that otherwise might be obscured by shadows or darkness. He can also magnify objects, giving him a form of telescopic vision.

Mann now restricts access to his Internet feed to people such as his wife, Betty, who has found some interesting uses for the technology.

"If I'm shopping at the milk counter, she can use her computer to draw a glowing circle around the low-fat carton, guiding me away from the full-fat variety," Mann says.

Mann met Betty in 1984. At the time, his then-crude wearable system required him to "metallicize" his hair with a special silvery paint so it would conduct electricity. He admits his circle of friends at that time had gotten a little small, with many people put off by his technological persona.

"When I first met the person who was later to become my wife, I had already committed myself to being a cyborg, having modified myself into that way of existence," Mann recalls. "But she accepted me for what I was at a time when I was probably the only one on the planet living this kind of life."

In his latest system, Mann also gives his computer the authority to alter his reality.

"If I see a condom ad that I find offensive, I can just define that image and hit Control K - for 'kill' - and the image disappears. And if it ever appears in my field of vision again, the computer eliminates it before I see it," he says. Mann can choose to leave that visual space empty, or he can fill it with a pleasant image, such as a running waterfall.

To Mann, that condom ad is a visual form of spam, the unwanted advertising messages that clog personal e-mail. It's something he doesn't want to see, something shoved in front of his face for commercial reasons. He sees his eyetap technology as a way to fight back against that intrusion.

"If the eye is the window to the soul, then that window needs a shade on it," Mann says. "If the brain is a computer, then the eye is an open port, an unsecured opening against hackers."

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