Thad Starner: Wearable Computing for Smarter Living

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr Thad Starner, founder and director of the Contextual Computing Group at Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing and more famously a pioneer of wearable computing who has been interviewed by The New York Times and New Scientist, appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s Nightline as well as given talks to IBM, Motorola and Google.

He has been wearing a custom computer for the last 20 years that includes a piece of kit projecting a small semi-transparent display of his netbook screen just below the line of vision of his left eye. He also uses a unique keyboard/mouse of his own invention called the Twiddler, allowing him to touch type at 120 words per minute with his hand essentially in his pocket or by his side.

Because he also wears his netbook slung over his shoulder the overall effect is that while it looks pretty cool it also looks like it takes getting used to and could require plugging yourself in at a power point every so often so I ask him if he has considered implantable technology.

“Okay, let’s do a design exercise. What sort of implant technology would you like to do?
“I’d like to have something in my wrist so that I could scan it and pay for items instead of taking out my wallet. Maybe an ID chip that includes my online identity and data.”
“Let’s look at implanting a reader in your wrist. What do you do for batteries?”
“A dynamo, maybe,” I suggest.
“I’ve worked on that – it turns out you can’t get enough power, however I can make you a wristwatch that does that. If you look at our research there is a one with a coil that does RFID chips so say you reach for your iPad it will detect this and read into your watch. The great thing about it is that you can always take it off and replace the battery,” he explains.

Having a conversation with Starner is more like an exercise in real-time problem solving rather than having someone pass information along to you. You actually get the sense that not only does he never stop thinking but he is making sure you’re along for the ride.

On seeing my iPad Starner points out that, like me, most reporters have a tablet or notepad in tow in order to take notes while interviewing someone or attending a conference. Now, I’m a pro at this: I listen to the speaker, take notes and tweet (complete with correct hashtag) while checking the sound volume on my audio recorder and having a sneaky look at my email.

As it turns out I’m far from a pro: “the physical dexterity needed to do handwriting or input on these tablets gives you the memory of a drunk … so while you’re actually doing it you have a really hard time trying to take in new information,” explains Starner.

“So much so that people like me who have been trained to speak publicly will supply some quote that you proceed to take down and I’ll continue with a conversation that’s complete filler until you get done writing it and then I can say the more important stuff later when I have your attention.”

“You’re designing your talks around the fact that people can’t multitask, I ask,” all smugness and insight. “I am doing this conversation this way,” he replies without blinking.

Starner has this great way of letting you know your cognitive limits which pushes you to rethink how you absorb and process information – a rethinking that could perhaps include wearable computing to help you in a data dense world. I am now beginning to see how he came upon his visor/Twiddler combo as a solution to information sorting and recall. I am beginning to wish I was in his Borg collective.

As he tries to explain best how the visual/manual co-ordination required to navigate a touchscreen device is problematic for multitasking Starner has a way of expressing himself that sounds like he is autocorrecting in realtime if he thinks what he has just said might not be the best way of putting it. Either he is becoming more efficient and computer-like or he is in fact updating in real-time by pulling down previous notes he has made and viewing them on his screen embedded in his goggles.

While you’re talking to Starner it is difficult to maintain constant eye contact because his line of vision will jump down to the projected screen under his left eye as he reads some notes freshly called up on screen with the Twiddler. The effect, however, is not that he doesn’t seem focused on the interview at hand but rather that he seems super-focused.

In his talk to the conference attendees he explains how he came up with the concept of wearable computing. While a student at MIT he said that he found he could listen attentively to his lecturers but have no notes of what was said and forget it all a few days later or he could attempt to take notes and miss out on half of what was said in the first place.

“Computers can do it a whole lot better than we can. We should design our computer interfaces to help us compensate with the problems that we’re having in our everyday lives.”

“You only want to make it augment your conversation, not replace it,” he explains as he tells me he is pulling up a talk he gave yesterday and proceeds to drop in quotes from it into his conversation, which actually does explain it a lot better: “We should make mobile systems that help the user pay attention to the real world as opposed to retreating from it. We should make calm technology that mediates interruptions instead of just adding to them,” he says, quoting himself from 24 hours earlier.

This kind of wearable computing does seem life enhancing. An anecdote from Starner on a recent dinner conversation where he was able to talk on the same level as an expert in an unrelated field simply by pulling up data on his screen shows what an advantage it is. But is it the kind of advantage that is, let’s face it, a bit like cheating?

“Of course. That’s the whole point. When a gentleman can’t win he changes the game,” he says, laughing.

“I’m not the smartest guy on the planet but I want to be a computer science professor. I’m surrounded by a lot of people who want the same thing. How do I make myself smarter?”

He says he stumbled on to it: “During my qualifying exam at MIT every paper I was supposed to read, everything I was supposed to do including my own answers was on my computer and as we’re having the conversation the system is automatically pulling up one summaries to remind me what to say next.”

The examining professors sitting in front of Starner asked him if he was using his wearable computer for his exam, he said yes and that he had the remembrance agent running too. A conversation ensued as to whether this was fair or not.

“My PhD almost read ‘Thad Starner and his wearable computer’ instead of ‘Thad Starner’. I almost wish they would have done it because it would have been really cool. I would have been the first cyborg PhD.”

Perhaps Starner didn’t get his cyborg PhD but he is making important changes in how we interact we technology as a natural part of our lives. What everyone is wondering is “when do I get to wear the visor?”

‘The heads up display, which is what everybody thinks about but which is only a portion of my life; when is that going to happen? I can’t really tell you. It’s going to happen some day but it will involve figuring out how to integrate it into people’s lives before it becomes commonplace.”

Dr Thad Starner spoke at the Atlantic Conference 2011, a conference on science education in Ireland run by the Atlantic Corridor.

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