Steve Mann is considered by many to be the father of wearable computing. The writer, thinker, and inventor has been working with wearable technology and writing about surveillance for decades. The artist is best known for EyeTap, a wearable camera that mediates reality from the wearer’s personal point of view: their eye. Through computer generated displays and augmentation it helps the wearer to see the world differently and often more clearly than the naked eye would, such as reading signage that is unclear from a distance. Mann explains a simple, everyday function for EyeTap and how it works:
“For example, when a car’s headlights shine directly into my eyes at night, I can still make out the driver’s face clearly. That’s because the computerized system combines multiple images taken with different exposures before displaying the results to me." Mann, Steve (Mar. 1, 2013) Steve Mann: My “Augmediated” Life
This mediated reality is far different than an Oculus, or even Google Glass. Google Glass serves to show you personal notifications, weather, or directions. Virtual reality creates a new world to inhabit. EyeTap seemingly combines the two systems helping augment our reality with computer aided visuals and filters. Mann began prototyping the different versions of computer-assisted vision since the 1970s and brought an earlier iteration of the EyeTap to MIT in the 1990s where he began the Wearable Computing Group. Mann has been developing the device ever since and now has four distinct generations of what he has been calling “Digital Eye Glass”. Mann thinks of his work as inventions or experiments, while many others consider it an act of everyday performance art. This is because Mann must wear EyeTap everyday now because it is no longer optional. His eyesight has completely adapted to the use of the device and he cannot see correctly without it.
During its inception and early years, Mann’s design was large with a camera rigged to a helmet and backup computer strapped heavily to his body. The EyeTap’s current functions have made a large transformation, as well as its look which is now a sleek pair of futuristic glasses. The design and wearabilty precede Google Glass’s look. In fact, EyeTap precedes the idea of Google Glass and even the term “glass” opposed to glasses by nearly 35 years earning his father of wearable computing title that was aforementioned. Aside from teaching at the University of Toronto, Mann is also served as chief scientist at Meta, while creating a mediated reality headsets like his EyeTap device in 2013 called the Meta.01.
There has been an overarching assumption that EyeTap is used as a recording device for many years. This assumption has gotten Mann into a few different sticky situations. For example, in 2012 he was assaulted by a group of McDonald’s employees in Paris, France. Mann carries documentation from his physician and about the device when he travels in case he is questioned about documentation. While eating, an employee or employees attacked him and attempted to take his digital eye glass off of his body, which is not easily done. It is permanently attached to Mann’s skull and required special tools for removal. The assault caused the EyeTap to move to another mode, which eventually aided in this assault. Mann explains on his blog:
“The computerized eyeglass processes imagery using Augmediated Reality, in order to help the wearer see better, and when the computer is damaged, e.g. by falling and hitting the ground (or by a physical assault), buffered pictures for processing remain in its memory, and are not overwritten with new ones by the then non-functioning computer vision system.” Mann, Steve (Jul. 16, 2012) Physical assault by McDonald's for wearing Digital Eye Glass
This image buffering was able to capture stills of the perpetrators, which helped identify the employees. A similar incidence in 2004 allowed Mann to capture photos of another attacker who tried to forcibly remove EyeTap from Mann’s body and then hit him with his car before driving off. This defaulted mode captured photos of the man and his license plates and he was later identified by these images.
These attacks spark many questions about our awareness of constant surveillance and how it is integrated into our society. We are constantly surveilled by our government and corporations with camera embedded on every corner of our streets. With that in mind, why would one be so concerned about another person doing the same? Mann coined the term sousveillance meaning recording an event or activity as a person who is a part of said event or activity. He adopted this term from "sous" meaning "from below" in French while "sur" means above. He believes that the act of sousveillance can aid in counter-balancing the heavy one-sided act of surveillance. This lead to an early creation of the LifeGlog. This was a necklace with a fisheye lens that Mann used to document every moment of his day and begin sousveillance. He also adapted the term glog to mean a log of ones life that takes no management or is generated by computer opposed to blog, which is takes massive management. This wearable form of sousveillance and documentation is another invention or form of everyday performance that shows Mann's aptitude for tech trend prediction.
Mann may have been one of the first, but definitely isn't the last to make wearable technology and surveillance a topic for exploration. Adam Harvey's research is deeply imbedded in privacy and in 2013 he created a project called Stealth Wear. These wearable garments are in opposition to Mann's idea of sousveillance because he is thinking in terms of complete avoidance. Harvey is working towards making individuals unseen by overhead surveillance drones that are monitoring for thermal heat. Using invisibility as a method of defiance may be more understood and even more accessible. The project doesn't contain hardware technologies and has the potential to be more affordable than a LifeGlog camera and easier for upkeep. It also doesn't create a first person log of your everyday activities, which could become problematic. Right now, Stealth Wear is created with silver plated fabric with a high price tag, but silver plated blanket technology could make these designs more economical in the future. Despite the stark differences the two artists are still working towards the same goal. How do we overcome our current state of being surveilled? How do we create a movement of defiance?