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The MIT roots of Google Glass, the wearable information display

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 16, 2012 11:47 AM

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This week's Boston Globe column focuses on a group of MIT students who developed some of the first wearable computers — and are now working on Project Glass at Google. Glass is an effort to develop a light-weight, wirelessly-linked, wearable information display. Google took the wraps off late last month, with a demo for software developers in San Francisco.

One of those MIT alums, Thad Starner, is now a technical lead at Google, and also a professor at Georgia Tech.

Starner told me last week that his initial motivation for developing a wearable computer was that he wanted to be a better student: "I was spending $20,000 a year at MIT, and I wasn't remembering it. I decided to make a system that would let me take notes while I was also paying attention in class, and better retain things."

Starner has been wearing a computer regularly since the summer of 1993. "It's just part of my life," he says. And during our phone interview, he mentioned that the Globe was the first newspaper to cover his work, back in 1994, in a mini profile. I hadn't yet stumbled across that article in my research. Starner was wearing a pair of info-glasses of his own design at the time (not a prototype of Google Glass), so I asked him if that system was what reminded him of the coverage 18 years ago. You know it...

Here's that feature on Starner, and the photo that ran with it.

Thad Starner, 24, Somerville

OCCUPATION: Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student in media arts & sciences

HOBBIES: "Augmenting humans" with computers

FAVORITE MUSIC: The Rez Band, a Chicago "hard-rock band"

LAST VACATION: In Australia, to deliver a paper on handwriting recognition


HARDWARE IN HIS OFFICE: Silicon Graphics workstation linked to the MIT Media Lab net

HARDWARE EVERYWHERE ELSE: Starner's own "wearable computer." Display by Reflection Technology of Waltham; one-handed keyboard by HandyKey of Mt. Sinai, N.Y.; central unit by Park Engineering of Spokane, Wash.

USE OF TECHNOLOGY AT WORK: With a small computer display glued to one eye of his goggles, Starner walks about like a one-eyed cyborg -- half man, half machine and wholly unnerving to those who have not seen him before.

The eye display is attached by wire to a small computer on his belt. Another wire leads from the computer to the one-handed keyboard that Starner uses to keep running notes on a conversation (he claims to type 50 words per minute with it) or to search his files for a relevant tidbit.

Before talking to a reporter, Starner flips a switch to turn off the wearable computer. "I do that and half my brain is not here," he says. "It's not that I've lost what I have in my head. It's that this gives me so much more power." He claims to wear his invention nearly full-time when it is working -- in the office, at lunch and while walking around the campus of MIT.

For now, Starner claims the computer gives him "augmented memory." Talk to him of anything from technical subjects to Chinese food, and he will call up relevent notes from his computer. When a cellular phone is attached to the wearable computer, Starner says, a colleague can send an Internet message right to his eye, via the workstation in his office.

Starner says the eye display one day will be replaced by a tiny projector that flashes computer images into the goggles or eyeglasses. That will allow a doctor to superimpose a computer image of a chest over a live patient. A repairman at a remote site could ask his home base to project a template of a machine right into his glasses. Starner calls it "augmented reality."

GREATEST TECHNOLOGY DISASTER: "I thought I killed a supercomputer." While flipping a switch inside a Thinking Machines computer, "my screwdriver slipped and scraped across the pins of the chips . . . It went down, but the next morning it was up again."

ADVICE FOR FIRST-TIME USER: "Don't assume that IBM PCs and Macs are all there are in the world."

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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