Rise of the body hackers: Google, the wearable web and transhumanism
22nd May 2013 | 15:00
Could smartglass and the wearable web trigger 'transhumanism'?
Are you happy with your body? Or is just too darned organic? The fusing of man and machine is already happening, with so-called 'body hackers' implanting cameras, brainwave sensors and magnets in their bodies to allow everything from mind-control gadgets to dreaming in sound and navigation by vibration.
For now, these experiments are the reserve of 'grinders', a small group of DIY body modifiers who design, build and test their own modifications, but they may not remain outside the mainstream for long.
Google Glass might be called revolutionary by some, but could this mass-market wearable device also be an important step in human evolution?
As a standalone gadget, the much-anticipated Explorer Edition probably won't be as mind-blowing as some might think, but it could be a catalyst for a new era where electronics are worn, and where body hacking becomes the ultimate in geek chic.
Over 485 million of us will be wearing a web-connected watch, camera, eyepiece, pacemaker or other device by 2018, according to ABI Research. The web is becoming wearable.
Are wearable gadgets socially acceptable?
Anyone who remembers seeing the first Bluetooth hands-free headsets a decade ago will recall thinking their wearers crazy lunatics - some still might - though using a smartphone in public has no such connotations.
And despite their initial rarity value, it took almost no time for tablets and ebook readers to illicit zero interest from fellow commuters. Mike Hallett, Director of Sales for North America at video headset-makers Vuzix - whose M100 eyepiece will compete with Google Glass - thinks the same will happen to eyewear.
"Many trades and leisure pursuits already accept head-mounted gear," he says, picking out head torches, intelligent ski goggles and earpieces as just some of the head enhancements already worn throughout society.
"Wearable technologies are not new, but what is are the functions of wearable devices and the form factors. As these change, eyewear will become less obtrusive to vision and will become acceptable and welcomed by everyday users."
Gowthaman Ragothaman, Chief Client Officer Asia Pacific at global media agency Mindshare, isn't so sure. "I must admit that a lot needs to be done with the head-mounted display to make the device less intrusive," he says. "It will need to be made into a fashion statement or a fashion accessory to become socially acceptable."
Are there any gadgets I can already wear?
Smartwatches like the Pebble, Martian and I'm Watch already exist - and Apple could follow suit soon - but there are a host of more interesting wearable gadgets already out there.
Other efforts at wearables include Memeto, an always-on 'lifelogging' camera that clips to clothes and shoots an image twice a minute, automatically uploading to a smartphone app, and Larklife, a fitness-awareness armband that uses an accelerometer and Bluetooth to record your every move on a smartphone.
Google's effort at headwear might be the most anticipated, but the heads-up display has been pioneered by the likes of the Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer, the Vuzix M100, Oculus Rift, Epson Moverio BT-100 and the Oakley Airwave smart ski goggles.
The latter, ski goggles that present live data such as speed, altitude and time on an eyepiece in the lens, is marketed with the slogan 'straight to your brain'. For now, it's just marketing, but the use of such language is interesting in a conditioning sense - when gadgets like these actually do interact with our bodies and brains, we'll likely already be used to the idea.
How does the wearable web help the individual and wider society?
"This is a personal experience and how each person uses a product will be different, so one person may want to have constant updates on stock quotes, while another needs directions while walking, while another may want translation of signs and maps," says Hallett of eyewear and heads-up displays. "It's all about information access on the go, when you want it."
There are more serious scenarios for wearables. Emotiv's EPOC headset, which can read brain signals, has been used by visual artists, and by disabled people to operate a mind-controlled electric wheelchair.
The Muse headband is, for now, only able to discern two variables in calculating whether a brain is stressed or relaxed, but maker InteraXon is promising extended features in the future that will allow the user to control a TV, computer or a tablet - something that consumer electronics company Haier has already demoed.
Headsets and eyewear will eventually be made smaller, of course, with wearables eventually becoming completely hidden. "As technology becomes more ingrained into our lives, it is likely to evolve to become an invisible layer upon our bodies," says Mark Curtis, Chief Client Officer at global service design consultancy Fjord, which created PayPal Mobile and the BBC iPlayer for mobile. He's talking about low-power, flexible screens being available on almost any product imaginaeble, and that includes clothes.
Techy clothes are already available from companies like CuteCircuit, which uses conductive fabrics to produce LED-studded dresses that light up in response to either music or mood.
Again, it gets much more serious than that, with the Smart Clothes and Wearable Technology Research Centre at the University of Wales Newport investigating the use of smart textiles in clothing to help with the challenges of ageing. Sensors buried within the fabric can monitor heart rate or even trigger a personal alarm, thereby replacing the functions of a fiddly phone.
Self-heating clothes could be one way of solving the winter fuel problem - you heat yourself rather than an entire house or room - but for now it's limited to ski-centric gadgets like Rohan's Powerstation self-heating winter gloves.
What is body hacking and transhumanism?
"While many body hackers embrace implants that enhance seemingly minor aspects of their everyday lives, concerns about magnifying intelligence, improving physiology and extending life are at the core of both professional and amateur practices," says Clare Acheson at Stylus, a research and advisory firm who produced a report earlier this year entitled Technological Body Modification: The Search for Singularity.
The report explores transhumanism and the 'temporary cyborgs' as seen in YouTube sensation True Skin, but increasingly in real life via DIY creations like the EyeBorg prosthetic 'digital' eye and the sonar, UV, WiFi and temperature-aware Bottlenose from Grindhouse WetWare, an echolocation device that translates data into a magnetic field that interacts with a magnet implanted in a human body.
The result is that users feel vibrations and learn what they mean. One example given is that someone with an implant could tell via a vibration in their finger how strong a cafe's WiFi connection is as they walk by. Banal, but impressive.
The end-game for all this is 'singularity': a state of super-intelligence that could entail endless implants and body modifications - and the end of humanity as we know it. A long time before we get there, however, will be the embracing of wearable technology by the internet's biggest brands; Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.
It's already possible to check-in on Facebook by touching the side of the Cookoo smartwatch, and such trickery on all kinds of gadgets is only a software release away. Expect to hear much about 'designing for context' as the mobile web moves into wearables.
Are wearable gadgets bad for us?
No one wants a rusty implant, but even passive technology such as smartwatches and headsets can encourage a reliance on and addiction to gadgets that many of us - let's be honest - already fear is occurring (you check your emails in bed?).
"There is a possible health risk with always-on gadgets," says Ragothaman, who thinks it is a psychological challenge to have so many choices that we never had before. "We are becoming spoilt with options and the sheer fact that so much information is available in front of your eyes. It has become more than an addiction to always-on gadgets - it has become a big stress and a distraction."