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Inventor of Original Smartwatch Technology: Steve Mann

Who invented the first smartwatch? 

The modern Smartwatch functions much like a universal control for more than just television. It is capable of recording information, storing data, and even monitoring and tracking our movements and biological processes. However, this all-in-one tool wasn’t always conceived as such. It began as technology often does: slowly and with low resolution. But the idea was there: to create a wearable, fully functional computer. The idea was first detailed by the inventor of smartwatch technology in a 2000 Linux Journal Article titled A GNU/Linux Wristwatch Videophone

 

Steve’s the Mann of the Hour

 Steve Mann, an inventor and professor widely hailed as “the father of wearable computing” expanded on the concept at the MIT Media Lab. Before arriving at the prestigious institution, Mann earned several Science and Engineering degrees from McMaster University. While studying (and eventually teaching), he developed High Dynamic Range photography, or HDR. Specifically, this technology meant to reduce the visual glare welders experience while welding. The bright light blinds the welder to what they are doing, thus reducing detail and accuracy. HDR works by combining three images, one with high exposure, one with low exposure, and one in-between, into a single image at a rate of 120fps. As a result, the welder sees less glare and more detail. 

Mann called his invention “Digital Eye Glass” and later created the Wearable Computing Project at the MIT Media Lab to advance it. Notably, Mann often wears his invention which features a steel bar across his face that holds two pupil-sized lenses. This has prompted some to call him the first human cyborg. Consequently, it has also led to what others call “the first cybernetic hate crime” against the inventor of smartwatch devices.

  

World’s First Cybernetic Hate Crime

 The inventor of smartwatch concept details the incident in his blog. Steve Mann was travelling in Europe with his Digital Eye Glass permanently attached to his skull. The situation began with a normal trip to a McDonald’s in Paris. Two McDonald’s employees confronted him and his daughter when they sat down to eat. One of them, seemingly offended by the idea of being under surveillance from a customer, tried to remove the eyepiece. The incident sparked controversy and even led to a boycott movement against McDonald’s. But it also offered a glimpse into a world where ordinary people ‘stare back’ at the cameras watching them.

Staring Back at the Camera

 Mann became a proponent for what he called “sousveillance,” this idea of staring back:

 “Some of us have experienced resistance to this [DEG (Digital Eye Glass)] technology, as some people are frightened of cameras. Ironically, the people most frightened of cameras seem to be the ones who are pointing cameras at us (e.g. big multinational organizations that use lots of surveillance cameras in their own establishments). My own experience with EyeTap DEG is that objections raised by individuals are usually appeased by a simple explanation of what the eyeglasses do, and how they help me. Basically individuals can work things through. But when a large organization has a policy against cameras, we have a fundamental problem that, on the surface, would seem to have a chilling effect on mass acceptance of DEG.”

 While the DEG does not save images in real-time, a security feature triggered by the jostling of the eyepiece managed to capture the employee’s face. But this brings into question whether these devices mean to serve as aids or cameras, or both. The inventor of smartwatch technology commented on this:

 “In a world where people interact face-to-face, in often crowded spaces, a wearable camera is in itself not necessarily a violation of privacy when the images are used only for personal use. In fact, surveillance is a greater privacy violation than ‘sousveillance’ because, for example, when you’re alone, you might still be on camera.”

Getting Smarter: History of the Smartwatch

While Mann developed his concept for the first smartwatch, companies experimented with adding more functions to the standard wristwatch. However, it may help to understand just how we got to the point where we can carry our entire music library on our wrists.

 The Hamilton Watch Company and Electro/Data Inc. created the first digital watch in 1972. The ‘Pulsar’s’ simple steel case held a screen that illuminated the time in red digits. At that time the revolutionary watch cost a whopping $2,100. Consequently, many watchmakers, including the inventor of smartwatch technology, took notice and followed suit. Seiko, for example, took it even further, allowing user to input and view data on their watches. In 1983, they released the T001 which had one notable feature. A television antenna crowned the steel casing which featured a display for viewing. Of course, the quality was incredibly low, but this feature illustrated that the market was experimenting. The watch even made a famous appearance in James Bond’s Octopussy.

 Soon after the release of the T001, Seiko presented a new innovation. Their Data 2000 watch could store, as its name suggests, 2,000 characters which could be programmed from an external keyboard. But the real innovation came with the RC-1000, the first watch with the ability to connect to a computer. At that time, the popular computers were the Commodore 64 or the Apple II, and could be used to input and receive data from the watch. 

 However, Seiko released the first real smartwatch in the form of the RC-20 Wrist Computer. It contained an 8-bit Z-80 microprocessor and 2KB of RAM. Also contained within its relatively small 8KB of storage were applications for memos, world times, and a calculator.   

Cutting the Wires

 While the innovations by Seiko established a competitive standard for innovation, there was one catch: they required wires to transfer data. The Datalink by Timex solved this problem when they introduced the first wireless smartwatch in 1994. The digital timepiece encoded information when internal sensors detected the blinking display. Famously, the engineers at NASA used the watch for its novelty on par with the space program’s own mission to lead technological innovation.

Inventor of Smartwatch Functionality

 Mann made his contribution to the legacy of wearable computers with the first Linux Smartwatch in 1998. A 640x480, 24-bit colour VGA screen allowed display of images and video at 30 fps. Image transmittal was slow, however, since the device allowed a maximum transmittal rate of 8 fps due to the 2.4 mbs radio link. 

 The watch had several functions which operated through a ‘pie display’ on the watch face. This was the most natural choice for operating the functions since the clockwise organization of numbers provided a framework for using other applications. Each number corresponded to a specific function, such as: microphones, camera, (in)voluntary inputs, earpieces, and wireless communication. The watch also contained a sensor for measuring pulse (heart rate) and skin conductivity (sweatiness index). A VideoOrbits image stabilizer also appeared on the watch. This feature took pictures in 24-bit color, up to 50000 pixels across, and in true 48-bit color. 

 Subsequent developments in smartwatch technology included Samsung’s SPH-WP10 which included an LCD screen. This was the first watch capable of telecommunications, offering 90 minutes of talk time with an integrated speaker and microphone. IBM also released a Linux watch similar to Mann’s called the WatchPad. This one included an accelerometer, fingerprint sensor, and an early version of a vibrating mechanism. 

 Still, smartwatches never became commercially viable until the 2000’s when Kickstarter campaigns sprang up offering a new vision. Pebble and Omate release campaigns for watches that included phone calling, maps, and Android app capabilities. These watches advanced the concepts of the inventor of smartwatch design. They also generated the interest needed to show that bigger companies could invest in creating fully independent smartwatches. 

  

An Inventor’s Legacy

 Nicholas Negroponte, the Founder and Director of MIT’s Media Lab commented on Mann’s achievements:

 “Steve Mann … brought with him an idea … And when he arrived here a lot of people sort of said wow this is very interesting… I think it’s probably one of the best examples we have of where somebody brought with them an extraordinarily interesting seed, and then … it grew, and there are many people now, so-called ‘cyborgs’ in the Media Lab and people working on wearable computers all over the place. Steve Mann is the perfect example of someone… who persisted in his vision and ended up founding a new discipline.”

 No doubt, Mann introduced a new dimension to society with his DEG and smartwatch design. As surveillance becomes a bigger threat, our privacy dwindles and we are left helplessly observed. Arming ourselves with wearable technology, such as smartwatches and glasses can establish balance in our society. However, we are left at the mercy of big corporations and institutions who have no problem watching us, but take offense when the camera turns on them.

 The inventor of smartwatch technology foresaw a future where everything is smart, including the people: “When we’re surrounded by “smart lights”, “smart toilets”, “smart refrigerators”, and the like, what’s wrong with having “smart people”? That is, what is wrong with putting intelligence on people?”

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