Exhibit offers peek at tomorrow’s wearable technology

From the top, Glass prototype: Koala, October 2012; Glass prototype: Dog Metal June 2011; Glass prototype: Ant, March 2011 on display at the new wearable technology exhibit at the Computer History Museum on June 29, 2015 in Mountain View, Calif. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

Wearable tech, that much-buzzed-about phenomenon coming soon to a body (very) near yours, already has arrived at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., with an exhibit called "On You: A Story of Wearable Computing."

To get an idea of what we might expect from wearables, we dropped by for a peek at the show, a jumble of headsets, wrist devices, wired footwear and bulky power converters, all laid out and labeled inside shiny new exhibit cases. And what better techie to walk us through it than co-curator Thad Starner. He's an early pioneer in wearable technology and Georgia Tech faculty member who's been wearing his own customized computer systems since 1993. In other words, in addition to being a manager on Google's Project Glass, Starner literally walks the walk when it comes to wearable tech.

"Wearables are a fundamentally new category of technology," he said, leading us through the exhibit, which opened recently. "And just like the smartphone, they soon will become part of our lives."

The exhibit, culled from Starner's personal collection of products and prototypes of his own and his fellow pioneers, coincides with something of a perfect moment for wearables as long-standing obstacles to performance such as battery life, power supply and networking largely have been removed, opening up the possibility of bringing powerful computing, big data and nonintrusive user interfaces right to the human body.

Those challenges, in fact, are addressed in various sections of the show, starting with "Power & Heat," which features early stage batteries Starner used in 1993 for his first experiments. Not surprisingly, the life and strength of these bulky batteries pale in comparison to the tiny and long-lasting dynamos driving today's wearables. The section also features self-generated power devices that engineers have come up with over the years, including a shoe-powered contraption that turns your walking feet into a mini power plant because, as Starner says, "there's a lot of wasted energy in shoes!"


The exhibit offers a fascinating look back at the early days of wearable computing, with a particular focus on 2000 when, Starner says, "this magic started to happen with power sources and everything got better." By looking back, you start to see wearables in a historical context that helps you see where things are headed. For example, the section on "Networking" looks at the importance of creating a "body network" where sensors and computers are linked together on the body and the clothing that covers it. One example is a Bluetooth-enabled device that lets FedEx workers scan and track packages, hands-free and super efficiently, with a small finger-mounted reader that's activated every time the user leans down. Expect a whole lot more of this kind of magic.

Co-curator Clint Zeagler is a research scientist at Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Design, where he teaches courses like "Wearable Product Design" and "Mobile Ubiquitous Computing," subjects borne of his academic pursuits in both fashion design (Domus Academy in Milan) and industrial design (from Georgia Tech). He says the exhibit was inspired by seven years of teaching alongside Starner: As the two began to collaborate on projects, Zeagler says, "I gradually learned that Thad had been collecting wearables for the past 20 years and had closets full of things like head-mounted displays and other contraptions that would attach to the human body, both stuff he had made and stuff he had found that came out of consumer-grade electronics.

Zeagler started pushing Starner to help put together an exhibit and "he finally said, 'OK, here's my stuff.'" First came a showing at a conference in Canada, then a museum in Munich, "and then to Angela Merkel's office in Berlin," says Zeagler. The current show, which runs through Sept. 20, offers a sweeping look at a technology that's been percolating just below the public's radar for decades now.

"When these guys at MIT and other places started looking at this stuff more than 20 years ago, they were literally taking apart laptops and strapping them to their bodies," said Marc Weber, Internet History Program founder at the museum. "There was no Bluetooth and it was difficult to connect to the Internet wirelessly. But the technology is now either ready or getting very close to being ready, and the next frontier will be how people use this technology."

So where is all this going? Starner continues his work with Google Glass and other projects. Zeagler keeps embedding textiles with sensors, a practice he says will become more and more common as the tech and fashion industries continue to work more closely together on projects.

Referring to this growing use of conductive thread that essentially turns clothing into computers, Zeagler excitedly says, "You can touch the fabric and control stuff; your clothes essentially become an interface."

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