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Highlights From Wearable Computing’s History

The first “Glass” wearable? 1997. Early fitness bands that measure pulse? 2002. Wearables have been around longer than you think

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Highlights From Wearable Computing’s History
Photo: Tekla Perry

“On You,” a traveling exhibition on the history of wearable computing, opened this week at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., where it will be on display until September 20, 2015. Curated by researchers at Georgia Tech, the display covers virtual reality, augmented reality, and health and fitness monitors.

Clint Zeagler, a research scientist at Georgia Tech and co-curator of the exhibit has a few personal favorites, like the 1999 Reebok Traxtar, the first shoes with built-in fitness sensors that predated the 2006 Nike+ (and were a lot more fun—meet certain goals and they played “Pomp and Circumstance”). He’s also fond of the Herbert 1, an audio-based wearable with a seven-button chording keyboard that could be easily used while walking—not so much because of what it did, but because it was designed to fit into a VHS cassette box, another piece of technology history younger exhibit visitors often don’t recognize.

I had a few favorites of my own:

Philips Scuba. Some 55,000 people bought this 1997 Virtual Reality mask at $300 each, predating the not-yet-on-the-market consumer version of the Oculus Rift by nearly 20 years.

imgThe Philips Scuba aimed to provide an immersive virtual reality experience in 1997.Photo: Tekla Perry

The AMON. The Advanced care and alert portable telemedical monitor (AMON), from ETH-Zurich, was measuring pulse, oxygen saturation, heart rhythm, and ECG in 2002. A bit bigger than today’s fitness monitors, but far more functional.

imgThe AMON, a wearable armband, measured pulse, oxygen saturation, and other biometrics in 2002.Photo: Tekla Perry

The MicroOptical embedded prescription display. This 1997 vintage pair of prescription eyeglasses reflect an image from an LCD panel in the earpiece to the wearer’s eye, in much the same way that Google Glass works. They tended to slip forward, however, pushing the image out of alignment with the wearer’s eye, said Ziegler, so were shelved after two months of use.

imgThe MicroOptical display for augmented reality, used in 1997, worked in much the same way as Google Glass.Photo: Tekla Perry

Jonny’s Sensor Jacket. This 1999 garment tracks movement in position using sensors knitted from conductive thread. Ziegler explained that when the wearer stretched the fabric, the threads would pull closer together, changing the conductivity of the circuits.

imgThe sensors on this 1999 movement-tracking jacket were knitted from conductive thread.Photo: Tekla Perry

Google Glass prototypes. Appropriate for an exhibition less than a mile from Google’s campus, this host of Glass prototypes shows the evolution of the technology from the “Pack Headset” in 2010, to the “Ant,” “Cat,” “Lennon”, two “Dogs,” “Emu,” “Fly,” “Gnu,” “Hog,” “Ibex,” and “Koala.” Also an interesting snapshot into code-naming projects.

imgGoogle Glass evolved through many generations of prototypes.This, codenamed “Pack,” was the first operational version.Photo: Tekla Perry

Georgia Tech’s Wearable Computing Center has a complete description of much of the collection here.

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