An M.I.T. doctoral student talks about his work in shrinking monitors, keyboards, and more for smartclothing.
You're sitting in a meeting with five humorless venture capitalists. Suddenly they ask you a question you haven't thought about. Your mind goes blank. Your palms get sweaty. What do you do? (a) Make something up and pray they don't do the math. (b) Quietly ask to be excused and never come back. (c) Relax and quickly pull up the answer on the monitor in your eyeglasses as the temperature-detector device in your underwear slowly adjusts the room temperature to dry out your sweaty palms.
Steve Mann would like you to choose answer c. The 34-year-old doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab is trying to shrink monitors, keyboards, and wireless communicators to fit into "smart" clothing. Mann himself has worn a device in his underwear that sensed when he was cold and sent out radio signals to a computerized-thermostat heating unit.
If you'd like to see the world through Mann's eyes, check out his Web page, where you might watch a segment of his ongoing "shared visual memory" project, an image derived from a wireless camera attached to Mann's hat as he struts around Cambridge, Mass. (Just keep trying if the page is down; Mann is constantly updating it.) The business applications for "shared visual memory environments" are endless, insists Mann. If you can't go along on a business trip with your partners, you can still watch the whole thing through their eyes. And if you want to put your two cents into a meeting, simply fire off an E-mail. If you have partners like Mann, they'll see it pop up on their computer-monitor eyeglasses.
Mann hopes that someday people will carry a few lifetimes' worth of information with them everywhere they go, accessible at a touch. Never again will your mind go blank in a business meeting. You'll be able to access everything from your company's financials to the name of every kid who was in your first-grade class, just by tapping your belt-mounted keyboard. Want to pass all the company secrets on to your successor? Someday, all you may have to do is shake on it; Mann's currently researching the possibilities of downloading computer files through electrical impulses in the skin.
Smart clothes might not be on the market in time for your next investors' meeting, but look for them around the turn of the century.