Behind digital eyes

Monday, January 12, 2004

TORONTO -- When you first meet Steve Mann, it seems as if you've interrupted him appraising diamonds or doing some sort of specialized welding. Because the first thing you notice is the plastic frame that comes around his right ear and holds a lens over his right eye.

But quickly you see that there's more to his contraption: A tiny video camera is affixed to the plastic eyepiece. Multicolored wires wrap around the back of Mann's head. Red and white lights blink under his sweater.

Mann greets you, warmly at first, though he soon gets distracted by something on the tiny computer monitor wedged over his eye.

In fact, being with Mann sometimes feels like the ultimate, in-your-face version of having a dinner companion who talks on a cell phone.

But don't be put off by it. Someday you, too, might be a cyborg.

Mann, a 41-year-old engineering professor at the University of Toronto, spends hours every day viewing the world through that little monitor in front of his eye -- so much so that going without the apparatus often leaves him feeling nauseous, unsteady, naked.

While the small video camera gives him a recordable, real-time view of what's in front of him, the tiny screen is filled with messages or programming code fed by a computer and wireless transmitters that Mann straps to his body. He calls the experience "mediating reality" -- sort of like having icons from your computer screen transposed onto your regular vision.

Mann manipulates the computer through a handheld key device he invented, though he has experimented with putting electrodes on his skin and trying to control the cursor with brain waves.

If it sounds a bit creepy, consider this: Mann became a cyborg so he could be more human.

To be sure, that runs contrary to the sci-fi movie treatment of cyborgs (short for "cybernetic organisms") as electronic beasts, like in the "Terminator" movies. It also seems to violate a pastoral sense of what it means to be human: governed by spirit, reason and instinct, not infused with wires and silicon.

But Mann has sensitive and perceptive motives for his electronic immersion, which began 25 years ago. He believes that wearing computers and cameras will give people more power to maintain their privacy and individuality.

For one thing, Mann touts the power of wearable computers to filter out advertising and other elements of daily experience he finds objectionable.

And in a world of ever-increasing surveillance cameras for security, and strong database-mining software for government intelligence and corporate marketing, Mann believes regular people ought to have cameras and powerful computers on them, too. It's all about leveling the power dynamic.

"People feel they're masters of their own destiny when everything they need is right there with them," he said.

A cyborg could, say, take pictures of hostile police officers during a political demonstration and instantly post them on the Web -- to spur others to join in the protest, perhaps, or to simply provide alternative documentation of the scene.

In more everyday language, Mann advocates "using a bit of the machine against itself."

Yet Mann's cyborg experience is much more than a political statement or geek showboating.

In his 2000 book "Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer," Mann wrote about the surreal beauty he experienced in programming the computer in his vision to alter colors, or alert him to objects behind him.

"The wearable computer allows me to explore my humanity, alter my consciousness, shift my perspectives so that I can choose -- any given time -- to see the world in very different, often quite liberating ways," he wrote in "Cyborg."

For example, Mann and his graduate students have developed software that can transform billboards or other rectangular shapes in the physical world -- when viewed through the lens of a wearable computer -- into virtual boxes for reading e-mail and other messages.

Mann envisions future generations walking down the street and seeing virtual, personalized messages on bus stops and building walls. A friend could log onto your blog to see where you were, then fire off a quick e-mail that only you would see on the park bench: "Turn around -- you went two blocks too far."

Of course, there are more prosaic possibilities. Mann's graduate student James Fung once was wearing an EyeTap while sitting around a campfire with friends and used its wireless Net connection to find a ghost story to tell.

"It was a nice example of myself and the computer working together," Fung said. "You could imagine that if it were completely concealed in glasses ... people would naturally think that I was able to recall the stories myself."

Mann builds his "WearComps" and "EyeTaps" himself, with input from his wife, Betty, who has worn the gear, too, for nearly 15 years.

Resistance is futile

Mann believes a cyborg future is inevitable. Eventually, he says, everyone will want to be more tightly linked with computers, to enhance our memory and connections to other people.

And in that case, Mann contends that wearing the machine will be optimal. "My computer's twisted up like a pretzel around me, instead of me all hunched over a box," he said with pride.

But professor, could there really ever be widespread demand for your kind of device? Getting cues from a tiny machine or communicating through it is one thing, but when do you think John Q. Public would let a computer "mediate reality"?

"Any prediction can turn out to be a combination of codswallop, kerfluffle and flapdoodle," he said. "A lot of people try to predict the future, and I guess one question is, why should I listen to them?"

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