The Future is Here: Fabric Circuit Boards

fabric_circuitboard1Chances are that almost every piece of electronics handled by someone today is some sort of printed circuit board (PCB). PCBs are an essential part of modern technology, but as technology improves and moves into the realm of the wearable and the flexible, their rigid and flat design is being reconsidered. In addition to looking for more flexible materials, there’s also a desire to break the 2-dimensional mold.

That’s precisely what researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University were thinking of. Using a revolutionary, never-before-seen concept known as computerized knitting technology, they developed a new line of fabric circuit boards (FCBs).  To make them, lead scientists Qiao Li and Xiao Ming Tao at HKPU relied a combination of conductive fibrous metal materials and traditional fabric.

fabric_circuitboardWithin the FCB, the wires are the equivalent of the circuits on a regular board, and the fabric acts as the mounting material that keeps everything in the right orientation and insulates different circuits. The finished FCBs can contain 3D circuits that are resistant to bending, stretching, and washing. To test this, Li and Ming subjected the boards to repeated stretching and folding, and found they were functional to about 1 million cycles.

The washing test was a little less successful with six of 30 samples experiencing mild damage after 30 washes, but that’s not bad when you consider a single wash cycle would probably kill your average PCB. Oddly enough, Li and Ming also wanted to test how the fabric stood up to bullets, and placed one inside a bulletproof vest. After several shots, the fabric boards continued to work without difficulty.

wearable_computingGarments made of FCBs could also to connect devices that are mounted on different parts of the body, like small solar panels on your back or shoulders to charge your devices. The FBC garment could then route that power into a battery pack or directly to your pocket where your phone charges wirelessly. Another potential use case would be biometric sensors that are built into your clothing instead of a device like a smartwatch or fitness band.

According to the team, the basic FCB design is ready for use. The fabric samples made as part of the study are reportedly rather comfortable and the circuits should be sturdy enough to outlast the fabric component of the garment as well. However, the success of FCBs will likely come down to cost. Right now, the Samsung S Shirt costs $199 with purchase of a smartphone and requires a two-year AT&T contract. Not quite cost-effective just yet!

Augmented_Reality_Contact_lensStill, what this amounts to is the possibility a future where “wearable computing” is taken quite literally. Beyond smart watches, smart rings, smart glasses, and portable computers, there could also be the option for “smart clothes”. In short, people may very well be able to wear their computer on their person and carry it with them wherever they go. Smartphones, contacts or glasses could then be worn to sync up and act as displays.

I can’t help but feel that this is all starting to sound familiar. Yep, echoes of Vinge’s Rainbow’s End right there! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video from New Scientist that gives a first-hand look at the fabric circuit board:


Sources:
extremetech.com, ecouterre.com
, newscientist.com

Digital Eyewear Through the Ages

google_glassesGiven the sensation created by the recent release of Google Glass – a timely invention that calls to mind everything from 80’s cyberpunk to speculations about our cybernetic, transhuman future – a lot of attention has been focused lately on personalities like Steve Mann, Mark Spritzer, and the history of wearable computers.

For decades now, visionaries and futurists have been working towards a day when all personal computers are portable and blend seamlessly into our daily lives. And with countless imitators coming forward to develop their own variants and hate crimes being committed against users, it seems like portable/integrated machinery is destined to become an issue no one will be able to ignore.

And so I thought it was high time for a little retrospective, a look back at the history of eyewear computers and digital devices and see how far it has come. From its humble beginnings with bulky backpacks and large, head-mounted displays, to the current age of small fixtures that can be worn as easily as glasses, things certainly have changed. And the future is likely to get even more fascinating, weird, and a little bit scary!

Sword of Damocles (1968):
swordofdamoclesDeveloped by Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sprouli at the University of Utah in 1968, the Sword of Damocles was the world’s first heads-up mounted display. It consisted of a headband with a pair of small cathode-ray tubes attached to the end of a large instrumented mechanical arm through which head position and orientation were determined.

Hand positions were sensed via a hand-held grip suspended at the end of three fishing lines whose lengths were determined by the number of rotations sensed on each of the reels. Though crude by modern standards, this breakthrough technology would become the basis for all future innovation in the field of mobile computing, virtual reality, and digital eyewear applications.

WearComp Models (1980-84):
WearComp_1_620x465Built by Steve Mann (inventor of the EyeTap and considered to be the father of wearable computers) in 1980, the WearComp1 cobbled together many devices to create visual experiences. It included an antenna to communicate wirelessly and share video. In 1981, he designed and built a backpack-mounted wearable multimedia computer with text, graphics, and multimedia capability, as well as video capability.

Wearcomp_4By 1984, the same year that Apple’s Macintosh was first shipped and the publication of William Gibson’s science fiction novel, “Neuromancer”, he released the WearComp4 model. This latest version employed clothing-based signal processing, a personal imaging system with left eye display, and separate antennas for simultaneous voice, video, and data communication.

Private Eye (1989):
Private_eye_HUDIn 1989 Reflection Technology marketed the Private Eye head-mounted display, which scanned a vertical array of LEDs across the visual field using a vibrating mirror. The monochrome screen was 1.25-inches on the diagonal, but images appear to be a 15-inch display at 18-inches distance.

EyeTap Digital Eye (1998):
EyeTap1
Steve Mann is considered the father of digital eyewear and what he calls “mediated” reality. He is a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and an IEEE senior member, and also serves as chief scientist for the augmented reality startup, Meta. The first version of the EyeTap was produced in the 1970’s and was incredibly bulky by modern standards.

By 1998, he developed the one that is commonly seen today, mounted over one ear and in front of one side of the face. This version is worn in front of the eye, recording what is immediately in front of the viewer and superimposing the view as digital imagery. It uses a beam splitter to send the same scene to both the eye and a camera, and is tethered to a computer worn to his body in a small pack.

MicroOptical TASK-9 (2000):
MicroOptical TASK-9Founded in 1995 by Mark Spitzer, who is now a director at the Google X lab. the company produced several patented designs which were bought up by Google after the company closed in 2010. One such design was the TASK-9, a wearable computer that is attachable to a set of glasses. Years later, MicroOptical’s line of viewers remain the lightest head-up displays available on the market.

Vuzix (1997-2013):
Vuzix_m100Founded in 1997, Vuzix created the first video eyewear to support stereoscopic 3D for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Since then, Vuzix went on to create the first commercially produced pass-through augmented reality headset, the Wrap 920AR (seen at bottom). The Wrap 920AR has two VGA video displays and two cameras that work together to provide the user a view of the world which blends real world inputs and computer generated data.

vuzix-wrapOther products of note include the Wrap 1200VR, a virtual reality headset that has numerous applications – everything from gaming and recreation to medical research – and the Smart Glasses M100, a hands free display for smartphones. And since the Consumer Electronics Show of 2011, they have announced and released several heads-up AR displays that are attachable to glasses.

vuzix_VR920

MyVu (2008-2012):
Founded in 1995, also by Mark Spitzer, MyVu developed several different types of wearable video display glasses before closing in 2012. The most famous was their Myvu Personal Media Viewer (pictured below), a set of display glasses that was released in 2008. These became instantly popular with the wearable computer community because they provided a cost effective and relatively easy path to a DIY, small, single eye, head-mounted display.myvu_leadIn 2010, the company followed up with the release of the Viscom digital eyewear (seen below), a device that was developed in collaboration with Spitzer’s other company, MicroOptical. This smaller, head mounted display device comes with earphones and is worn over one eye like a pair of glasses, similar to the EyeTap.

myvu_viscom

Meta Prototype (2013):
Developed by Meta, a Silicon Valley startup that is being funded with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and supported by Steve Mann, this wearable computing eyewear ultizes the latest in VR and projection technology. Unlike other display glasses, Meta’s eyewear enters 3D space and uses your hands to interact with the virtual world, combining the benefits of the Oculus Rift and those being offered by “Sixth Sense” technology.

meta_headset_front_on_610x404The Meta system includes stereoscopic 3D glasses and a 3D camera to track hand movements, similar to the portrayals of gestural control in movies like “Iron Man” and “Avatar.” In addition to display modules embedded in the lenses, the glasses include a portable projector mounted on top. This way, the user is able to both project and interact with computer simulations.

Google Glass (2013):
Google Glass_Cala
Developed by Google X as part of their Project Glass, the Google Glass device is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display (OHMD) that incorporates all the major advances made in the field of wearable computing for the past forty years. These include a smartphone-like hands-free format, wireless internet connection, voice commands and a full-color augmented-reality display.

Development began in 2011 and the first prototypes were previewed to the public at the Google I/O annual conference in San Francisco in June of 2012. Though they currently do not come with fixed lenses, Google has announced its intention to partner with sunglass retailers to equip them with regular and prescription lenses. There is also talk of developing contact lenses that come with embedded display devices.

Summary:
Well, that’s the history of digital eyewear in a nutshell. And as you can see, since the late 60’s, the field has progressed by leaps and bounds. What was once a speculative and visionary pursuit has now blossomed to become a fully-fledged commercial field, with many different devices being produced for public consumption.

At this rate, who knows what the future holds? In all likelihood, the quest to make computers more portable and ergonomic will keep pace with the development of more sophisticated electronics and computer chips, miniaturization, biotechnology, nanofabrication and brain-computer interfacing.

The result will no doubt be tiny CPUs that can be implanted in the human body and integrated into our brains via neural chips and tiny electrodes. In all likelihood, we won’t even need voice commands at that point, because neuroscience will have developed a means to communicate directly to our devices via brainwaves. The age of cybernetics will have officially dawned!

Like I said… fascinating, weird, and a little bit scary!

‘High Dynamic Range’

Of Cybernetic Hate Crimes

Google Glass_CalaLast week, a bar in Seattle banned the use of Google Glass. The pub declared on their Facebook page that if anyone wanted to order a pint, they had better remove their $1500 pair of augmented reality display glasses beforehand. Citing the glasses potential to film or take pictures and post them on the internet, the bar owner unflinchingly declared that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.”

This is the second case of what some are dubbing a new wave of “Cybernetic hate crimes”. The first took place back in July 2012 when Steve Mann, a Canadian university professor known as the “father of wearable computing”, was physically assaulted at a McDonalds in Paris, France. In this case, three employees took exception with his wearable computer and tried to physically remove it, an impossibility since it is permanent screwed into his head, and then three him out of the restaurant.

steve-mann1Taken together, these two incidents highlight a possible trend which could become commonplace as the technology grows in use. In some ways, this is a reflection of the fears critics have raised about the ways in which these new technologies could be abused. However, there are those who worry that these kinds of fears are likely to lead to people banning these devices and becoming intolerant to those who use them.

By targeting people who employ augmented reality, bionic eyes, or wearable computers, we are effectively stigmatizing a practice which may become the norm in the not too distant future. But Google responded to the incident with optimism and released a statement that cited shifting attitudes over time:

It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.

smartphonesYes, one can remember without much effort how similar worries were raised about smartphones and camera phones not that long ago, and their use has become so widespread that virtually all doubts about how they might be abused and what effect they would have on social norms have gone quiet. Still, doubts remain that with the availability of technologies that make it easier to monitor people, society is becoming more and more invasive.

But to this, Mann, responds by raising what he had always hoped portable computing would result in. Back in the 1970’s when he first began working on the concept for his EyeTap, he believed that camera-embedded wearables could be both liberating and empowering. In a world permeated by security cameras and a sensory-sphere dominated by corporate memes, he foresaw these devices a means for individuals to re-take control of their environment and protect themselves.

EyeTapThis was all in keeping with Mann’s vision of a future where wearable cameras and portable computers could allow for what he calls sousveillance — a way for people to watch the watchers and be at the ready to chronicle any physical assaults or threats. How ironic that his own invention allowed him to do just that when he himself was assaulted!

And in the current day and age, this vision may be even more important and relevant, given the rise in surveillance and repressive measures brought on in the wake of the “War on Terror”. As Mann himself has written:

Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.

Raises a whole bunch of questions, doesn’t it? As the issue of dwindling privacy becomes more and more of an issue, and where most people respond to such concerns by dredging up dystopian scenarios, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this is a form of technology that rests firmly in our hands, the consumers, not those of an overbearing government.

google_glass_banBut then again, that doesn’t exactly ease the fears of a privacy invasion much, does it? Whether it is a few functionaries and bureaucrats monitoring us for the sake of detecting criminal behavior or acts of “sedition”, or a legion of cyberbullies and gawking masses scrutinizing our every move, being filmed and photographed against our will and having it posted is still pretty creepy.

But does that necessitate banning the use of this technology outright? Are we within our rights, as a society, to deny service to people sporting AR glasses, or to physically threaten them if they are unable or unwilling to remove them? And is this something that will only get better, or worse, with time?

Sources: IO9, (2), news.cnet.com, eecg.toronto.edu