Wearable Computing Conference Highlights

Just got back from the 7th IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers. As always, the subjects spanned several fields including augmented reality, machine perception, biosensors, fashion design and ergonomics, human-computer interaction, textiles, and systems. I’ll post a link to a full trip report in a few days, but here are a few highlights:

  • Implantables (keynote): it’s always nice when a keynote can do a conference one better, and that was certainly the case this year. Dr. Michael Okun, co-director of the University of Florida Movement Disorders Center, discussed and showed videos from his work on surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders using deep brain stimulator therapy (DBS). Okun and his colleague probe deep inside a fully awake patient’s brain with a micrometer lead and start “listening” to individual neuron firings to tell what part of the brain they’re probing. The target is the part of the brain that controls motion for the body part experiencing tremors — a spot about the size of a small pea. Then they insert a deep-brain lead attached to an embedded pacemaker-like device that sits in the chest. The device emits electrical pulses that change the pattern with which the neurons fire, and within seconds the patient’s tremor stops. The videos he showed were almost like magic; you can literally turn on and off a person’s tremor using a remote control.

    Even more thought-provoking is that when you move the deep-brain lead you can affect not just other motor functions but also cognition and emotions. Some of the videos he showed were of patients with slightly misplaced electrodes (placed by other labs). Depending on where the electrode has been placed, activation can induce face twitches, contralateral (one-sided) smiling, giggling and laughter, crying attacks, manic attacks, euphoria, severe depression, fear or anxiety. Some patients would cry while experiencing a sudden overwhelming feeling of sadness, while others would go into a fit of uncontrollable sobbing but have no feeling of sadness at all. To see all these effects induced with what looks like a normal TV remote is rather amazing, as is the thought that Okun thinks such techniques might one day be used to treat affective disorders, severe depression, or possibly even conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  • Memory Glasses: Last year Rich DeVaul presented a poster on some preliminary work showing that he could successfully cue people’s memory by displaying subliminals on a head-up display. The idea is that such a system might be used as a “zero attention memory aid,” designed to help a person remember names, facts or conversations without the additional cognitive load usually required. This year he presented a more complete study that bears out his hypothesis: subjects did about 1.5 times better on a match-names-to-faces recall test when they had subliminal cuing with names than when they didn’t have cuing. Even more intriguing, when subjects were given an incorrect subliminal cue (a name that matches a different face), they still did slightly better at remembering the correct name, presumably because the subliminal primed the memorization process as a whole even if it didn’t prime the specific name. This secondary effect was not quite statistically significant (p = 0.06) but if real it might mean that the subliminal only needs to be related to an event to have a positive effect. For example, you might better remember a conversation with your boss just by having a subliminal flashback of an image of what he was wearing at the time.

  • Sociometer: The real structure of a business isn’t the official organization chart but the informal network of who communicates with whom. In the late 1980s Olivetti and Xerox PARC used their active badge technology to explore some aspects of these networks, but Tanzeem Choudhury is taking it several steps further with active badges that can not only map out who talks to whom (using infrared beacons) but also the style of turn-taking that is used in a conversation (using microphones). Through this she’s able to, for example, determine who has more social prestige in a group by who modifies his or her speech patterns to match the other person in a conversation.