01 November 1998

From cyborgs to wearable computers

Babbage has, on occasion, expressed misgivings about the various interpenetrations of silicon and flesh. Why risk ‘cyborging’ oneself, when a wearable Analytical Engine can upgrade natural faculties through a removable carapace of information technology?

Babbage has encountered a number of such Engines, whose apparent variety simplifies to three essential types. First, and most straightforward, are those which deliver to their wearer a body of expertise. Babbage was recently shown helmet-mounted rigs for use by emergency and other workers in locations where expert support would be otherwise impossible. While video and audio devices provide outward communication, incoming data presentation derives from the ‘head-up displays’ of military aviators: half-silvered visors and mesh diaphragm earpieces that overlay vision and hearing.

A second type uses similar methods for controlling remote devices from a safer location. Babbage revisited a North Sea fish farm where he had been required to flounder in a diving suit through cold, murky waters. This time, he was given a headset and belt control pack, and instead promenaded around catwalks in pleasant sunshine. Some fathoms below, a small submersible vehicle kept automatic pace, relaying hydrophonic sounds and six video channels for Babbage’s edification.

A more alarming setting demonstrated the third type: that which amplifies the wearer's sensory analysis. In an urban warfare training ground, Babbage watched an infantry patrol under simulated sniper fire. Even as one man rolled for cover, a computer about his person was analysing the sound and its echoes, passing the source coordinates both to a wrist display and as aiming data to the optical sight of his weapon.

Although somewhat shaken, Babbage considered other applications. Sudden loud sounds might equally signal danger to firefighters or workers in volcanic areas, as could subtler sounds: the creak of a stressed component, or the rush of leaking industrial coolant. Other senses might be similarly augmented, and combination with headset displays could allow whole teams to track invisible and inaudible phenomena - say, a flock of bats in the dark - through a shared virtual environment.

This technology is closer to the everyday than Babbage had imagined. With many people already routinely carrying telecommunications and palmtop computing devices, and video cameras costing no more than a waterproof coat, no great conceptual leap is required to envision their connection. Who can say to what uses science might not put this sensory expansion?