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Cyborg vision: Getting in touch with your technological self

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Steve Mann, an eccentric University of Toronto engineering professor, right, and graduate student Chris Aimone are wearing the EyeTap digital eye glass.

Steve Mann, an eccentric University of Toronto engineering professor, right, and graduate student Chris Aimone are wearing the EyeTap digital eye glass.

CP photo/Aaron Harris

TORONTO — When you first meet Steve Mann, it seems as if you've interrupted him appraising diamonds or doing some sort of specialized welding. Because the first thing you notice is the plastic frame that comes around his right ear and holds a lens over his right eye.

But quickly you see that there's more to his contraption: A tiny video camera is affixed to the plastic eyepiece. Multicolored wires wrap around the back of Mann's head. Red and white lights blink under his sweater.

Mann greets you, warmly at first, though he soon gets distracted by something on the tiny computer monitor wedged over his eye.

In fact, being with Mann sometimes feels like the ultimate, in-your-face version of having a dinner companion who talks on a cell phone.

But don't be put off by it.

Someday you, too, might be a cyborg.

Mann, a 41-year-old engineering professor at the University of Toronto, spends hours every day viewing the world through that little monitor in front of his eye — so much so that going without the apparatus often leaves him feeling nauseated, unsteady, naked.

While the small video camera gives him a recordable, real-time view of what's in front of him, the tiny screen is filled with messages or programming code fed by a computer and wireless transmitters that Mann straps to his body. He calls the experience "mediating reality" — sort of like having icons from your computer screen transposed onto your regular vision.

Mann manipulates the computer through a handheld key device he invented, though he has experimented with putting electrodes on his skin and trying to control the cursor with brain waves.

If it sounds a bit creepy, consider this: Mann became a cyborg so he could be more human.

To be sure, that runs contrary to the sci-fi movie treatment of cyborgs (short for "cybernetic organisms") as electronic beasts, like in the "Terminator" movies. It also seems to violate a pastoral sense of what it means to be human: governed by spirit, reason and instinct, not infused with wires and silicon.

But Mann has sensitive and perceptive motives for his electronic immersion, which began 25 years ago. He believes that wearing computers and cameras will give people more power to maintain their privacy and individuality.

For one thing, Mann touts the power of wearable computers to filter out advertising and other elements of daily experience he finds objectionable.

And in a world of ever-increasing surveillance cameras for security, and strong database-mining software for government intelligence and corporate marketing, Mann believes regular people ought to have cameras and powerful computers on them, too. It's all about leveling the power dynamic.

"People feel they're masters of their own destiny when everything they need is right there with them," he says.

A cyborg could, say, take pictures of hostile police officers during a political demonstration and instantly post them on the Web — to spur others to join in the protest, perhaps, or to simply provide alternative documentation of the scene. Mann calls such postings "glogs" — short for "cyborg blogs" ("blogs," of course, is itself shorthand for "Web logs").

In more everyday language, Mann advocates "using a bit of the machine against itself."

For example, Mann has created performance art by shooting video in stores that prohibit it, using handheld cameras more noticeable than the "EyeTap" ocular computing system he normally wears. When employees tell him filming is not allowed, Mann points to the stores' own surveillance cameras behind darkened domes in the ceiling.

Then he tells the employees that "HIS manager" makes him film public places for HIS security — how does he know, he tells them, that the fire exits aren't chained shut? — and that they'll have to talk to HIS manager.

His behavior in such showdowns generally provokes hostility, confusion or resigned shrugs.

But don't try telling Mann that the complaining employees are just doing their jobs, and that his real beef is with executives who make store policy. Mann believes everyone should fight The System, those powerful institutions lurking behind the one-way mirrors.

"Clerks should be confronted with their clerk-iness," Mann says one afternoon in the Deconism Gallery, an electronic-art studio he runs near Toronto's Chinatown.

That comment is pure Steve Mann — onto something, but pedantic about it.

"Cyberman," a 2001 Canadian documentary about his work, includes footage of Mann telling the director and producer which scenes they ought to use and which ones to cut, a conversation he surreptitiously filmed through the EyeTap.

Yet Mann's cyborg experience is much more than a political statement or geek showboating.

In his 2000 book "Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer," Mann wrote about the surreal beauty he experienced in programming the computer in his vision to alter colors, or alert him to objects behind him.

"The wearable computer allows me to explore my humanity, alter my consciousness, shift my perspectives so that I can choose — any given time — to see the world in very different, often quite liberating ways," he wrote in "Cyborg."

For example, Mann and his graduate students have developed software that can transform billboards or other rectangular shapes in the physical world — when viewed through the lens of a wearable computer — into virtual boxes for reading e-mail and other messages.

Mann envisions future generations walking down the street and seeing virtual, personalized messages on bus stops and building walls. A friend could log onto your glog to see where you were, then fire off a quick e-mail that only you would see on the park bench: "Turn around — you went two blocks too far."

Of course, there are more prosaic possibilities. Mann's graduate student James Fung once was wearing an EyeTap while sitting around a campfire with friends and used its wireless Internet connection to find a ghost story to tell.

"It was a nice example of myself and the computer working together," Fung says. "You could imagine that if it were completely concealed in glasses . . . people would naturally think that I was able to recall the stories myself."

Mann builds his "WearComps" and "EyeTaps" himself, with input from his wife, Betty, who has worn the gear, too, for nearly 15 years.

He has shrunk it dramatically over time. His first wearable system had to be carried in a heavy backpack, then it morphed into a terrible-looking beast that featured a helmet topped with rabbit-ear TV aerials. Eventually Mann developed a system that could be hidden behind sunglasses, and now uses the one-side-of-the-face wraparound.

It can plug into a variety of computers and devices. One of his common setups involves a computer with a Pentium 4 processor, at least 512 gigabytes of memory and a specialized operating system based on Linux.

Depending on where he's going, Mann carries a few different wireless transmitters so he can connect to whatever kind of network — Wi-Fi, cellular, old-fashioned radio — happens to be available.

The system lets him check e-mail while out and about, for example, though Mann sets it to reject attachments that could clog the works. While lecturing to his classes, he can read his notes on the little monitor.

All this began in Mann's childhood in Hamilton, Ontario, where he was a tinkering misfit who would doodle circuitry designs in class.

He wired the family home to eavesdrop on his parents' conversations and invented a sonar raccoon detector for the backyard. He and his brother, Richard, now a computer science professor at Canada's University of Waterloo, put up sensors that would detect when a parent was coming upstairs, so the boys could pretend to be sleeping by the time their bedroom door opened.

As a teenager, Mann worked in a television repair shop and became fascinated by the mini-TVs that served as viewfinders in consumer camcorders. He decided to link that technology with computing, and by the late 1970s, he began experimenting with wearable computers.

He wore one to a high school dance. Steve Mann is not alone in dreaming of enhancing human capabilities with computer intelligence.

Some futurists consider it inevitable. Inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts a human-computer mind meld this century that will usher "The Age of Spiritual Machines."

Gazing into that same ethereal future, professor Kevin Warwick of Britain's University of Reading had circuitry implanted inside his arm for three months last year.

In one aspect of the experiment, Warwick moved his hand, and the implant relayed signals through the Internet to move a robotic hand. The gestures weren't coordinated, but Warwick said the test showed the feasibility of plugging electronic devices into the nervous system. Now Warwick hopes to lay the groundwork for a brain implant that could aid people with disabilities or augment existing abilities.

Mann believes a cyborg future is inevitable. Eventually, he says, everyone will want to be more tightly linked with computers, to enhance our memory and connections to other people.

And in that case, Mann contends that wearing the machine will be optimal. "My computer's twisted up like a pretzel around me, instead of me all hunched over a box," he says with pride.

Mann realizes that for mass appeal, wearable computing will have to be small — perhaps incorporated into contact lenses. That will take a big manufacturer, and indeed, Mann has advised Xybernaut Corp., a Virginia-based company that makes wearable computers — including one that fits over one eye — for field technicians, the military and the disabled.

But that incarnation of wearable computing, says Mann, is too specialized, too limited. "What's needed is the equivalent of the personal computer, which was designed for no purpose in particular, and so it started a revolution," he says.

But professor, could there really ever be widespread demand for your kind of device? Getting cues from a tiny machine or communicating through it is one thing, but when do you think John Q. Public would let a computer "mediate reality"?

Mann lets that question wash over him.

"Any prediction can turn out to be a combination of codswallop, kerfluffle and flapdoodle," he says while wearing the EyeTap at a Toronto pizza joint. "A lot of people try to predict the future, and I guess one question is, why should I listen to them?"