Resistance is futile

Prepare to be assimilated.

No, the Borg aren’t about to invade, but Dr. Steve Mann of the University of Toronto’s department of electrical and computer engineering is spending a lot of time on a quest that the infamous Star Trek enemies would understand: integrating human abilities with computer capabilities in order to come up with a more advanced, integrated and functional entity.

Mann, a Hamilton, Ont., native who went on to do graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started working on what he now calls WearComp while still in high school. Today, however, he has advanced far beyond the “speech-controlled LED light paintbrush” that he wore to high school dances as a “fashion item.”

Now his mobile, multimedia system runs on Linux 2.0 with Xfree86 and is comprised of cameras and microphones hidden in his large, dark sunglasses, a tank top woven with computer circuits, LEDs, contact sensors (for monitoring vital signs), radar systems and antenna arrays (usually operating at 24.36GHz), plus wireless communications equipment utilizing a bi-directional, real-time Internet connection, plus footstep sensors and traducers inside each shoe.

Wearing all that gear, which Mann describes as weighing not much more than normal clothing, gives the professor more control over his environment.

“Not only must the WearComp not inundate the user with excess information, but it should go further than that. It should help suppress unwanted outside information,” explained Mann,” because in many ways the eye is the window to the soul but it is like a window that has been left unlocked.

“In the world we live in now, why should we allow anybody to shove anything they want to into our minds?”

For instance, Mann said that when we drive down the street, it sometimes gets difficult to concentrate on the key tasks at hand – navigating and controlling the vehicle – because of the amount of information bombarding our senses: billboards, signs, etc. If we could filter these out, driving would become simpler.

“If, for example, you’re trying to drive to a friend’s house, wouldn’t it be nice if the billboards displayed directions on how to get there? Like if you’re supposed to turn right at the next intersection and you miss that turn, then you can look up and see a big billboard that reads, ‘You have gone too far, you just missed the turn.'”

While the billboard example may be a little advanced for now, Mann is able to send and receive text messages from wired colleagues and family that can be superimposed, through the use of a laser, onto the lens of his eye.

While Mann sees many advantages to being well-wired, he admits that adapting to this new form of existence won’t be easy.

Humanistic computing, the philosophy under which WearComp has been built, is defined by Mann in a paper submitted to the IEEE as “a new signal processing framework in which the processing apparatus is inextricably intertwined with the natural capabilities of our human body and mind.” (The paper is called Humanistic Computing: ‘WearComp’ as a New Framework and Application for Intelligent Signal Processing.)

Just because the human neural network learns to process new signal applications, however, doesn’t mean that it will do so naturally or instinctively. “My argument is that instead of trying to make it easy to adjust to quickly, which a lot of computers do, we should make them meaningful and intuitive over a long-term adaptation process, because it really is like adding extra senses to the body and the synergy is not really going to happen if it is kept down to a sort of system that requires a fast-learning type of interface.”

Once adapted to the new sensory stimulation, the body becomes dependent upon it, as Mann himself has found out. Because he is so used to viewing the world through the lens of a video camera, his sense of sight has come to expect that perception of reality. When he removes his glasses, Mann finds his depth perception has weakened. He now has what he calls “photographic awareness.

“Just like many people who are photo journalists or video camera operators, they have a sense of 2D awareness as I call it. An inexperienced (without photographic awareness) person may take a picture of you with a lamp post behind your head, and it will look like it is sticking out of your head because they don’t see in 2D, they only see in 3D…whereas wearing the glasses tends to cause one to learn photographic awareness.”

A person with photographic awareness would simply move to an angle or position where the lamp post is eliminated.

Mann is currently seeking investors to assist him in mass-producing commercial versions of this technology.