Steve Mann formally defined wearable computing in terms of its three basic modes of operation and its six fundamental attributes.
Mann points out that “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 toward 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” (Adapted from Steve Mann’s address Wearable Computing as Means for Personal Empowerment Keynote Address for The First International Conference on Wearable Computing, ICWC-98, May 12-13, Fairfax, VA. Originally found at EyeTap Glossary).
Operational modes of wearable computing
There are three operational modes in this new interaction between human and computer.
The computer runs continuously, and is always ready to interact with the user. Unlike a hand-held device, laptop computer, or PDA, it does not need to be opened up and turned on prior to use. The signal flow from human to computer, and computer to human runs continuously to provide a constant user interface.
Traditional computing paradigms are based on the notion that computing is the primary task. Wearable computing, however, is based on the notion that computing is NOT the primary task. The assumption of wearable computing is that the user will be doing something else at the same time as doing the computing. Thus the computer should serve to augment the intellect, or augment the senses.
Unlike hand held devices, laptop computers, and PDAs, the wearable computer can encapsulate us (Fig. 1c). It doesn’t necessarily need to completely enclose us, but the concept allows for a greater degree of encapsulation than traditional portable computers. There are two aspects to this encapsulation:
It can function as an information filter, and allow us to block out material we might not wish to experience, whether it be offensive advertising, or simply a desire to replace existing media with different media. In less severe manifestations, it may simply allow us to alter our perception of reality in a very mild sort of way.
Mediation allows us to block or modify information leaving our encapsulated space. In the same way that ordinary clothing prevents others from seeing our naked bodies, the wearable computer may, for example, serve as an intermediary for interacting with untrusted systems, such as third party digital anonymous cash “cyberwallets”.
Six Attributes (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:
Unmonopolizing of the user’s attention
(The Wearable Computer) 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.
Unrestrictive to the user
Is ambulatory, mobile, roving; “you can do other things while using it”. E.g. you can type while jogging, etc.
Observable by the user
Can get your attention continuously if you want it to; within reasonable limits (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.
Controllable by the user
The system must be controllable by the user in the idea that one can grab control of it anytime they wish and can be used as a communication medium when you want it to.
Attentive to the environment
It is environmentally aware, multimodal, multisensory. (this ultimately increases the user’s situational awareness). Communicative to others: it can be used as a communications medium when you want it to.
It 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).
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).
Implied by the above six properties is that it must also be:
Always on, running, and ready. May have “sleep modes” but is never “dead” (unlike a laptop computer, which must be opened up, switched on, and booted up before use).
Human and computer are inextricably intertwined.
You can adapt to it so that it acts as a true extension of mind and body; after time you forget that you are wearing it.
Resists, if you wish, prohibition or requests by others for removal. This is in contrast to a laptop, in briefcase or bag, that could be separated from you by the “please leave all bags and briefcases at the counter” policy of a department store, library, or similar establishment.
Others can’t observe or control it unless you let them.