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Wearable Linux: Notes from the Field - page 4

Business Now Embracing Wearable Linux

  • May 22, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

It seemed logical to spend the time I had for going to the actual conference sessions on the one labelled "Operating Systems." I was feeling pretty proud of my repertorial instincts before I even strayed past the booth of Professor Steve Mann of the University of Toronto.

In sharp contrast to the rest of the exhibits, Professor Mann's was a study in chaos. A yellow hard hat poked out of a tangle of cords, boxes were held to components with electrical tape. A hacked laptop was pressed into service as an output device for everything from wearable cameras used for high-definition composite pictures to full-motion cams that appeared to be reading something other than the normal light spectrum.

Professor Mann, himself, is instantly recognizable to anyone who remembers the early days of the Web when "that guy from MIT went around all day with a camera on his head you could see on his site." If the Web rendered what he was doing a spectacle, it didn't matter. He initiated the MIT wearable computing project before moving on, and he's founded the world's first "personal cybernetics" lab in Toronto. He and his students are proud to refer to themselves as "cyborgs" and don't at all mind displaying clippings from the press that insist on somehow working "resistance is futile" into the text. He claims to wear his portable rig 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Professor Mann's interests step outside the realm of mere gadget freakery, though: whenever any set of slides at a computing conference includes among the uses of a tool "Detournement: The process of re-situating everyday familiar objects in a disturbing and disorienting fashion to challenge society's everyday biases," it's a jaded writer who doesn't sit up and take notice.

Even if I had spent a few years in the pleasant party-banter murk that passes for anarchism in the American midwest, and even though we did share an admiration for the Situationist International, I had to get down to it quickly: during one of the brief moments the hacked laptop wasn't showing a video feed from some wearable gadget or another, I spotted a bash prompt and an xterm. I cornered graduate student James Fung and asked just where Linux fit in with the work he does with Professor Mann.

According to Fung, they won't use anything but Linux for everything they do. Fung gave me a quick tour of a toolset especially adapted for wearable computers and their small eyepiece displays: 40-column xterms with hacked versions of common tools allow for compressed display of system information, a reworked gzilla dubbed "glynx" allows for lightweight Web access, and a there's a mouseless configuration for fvwm to tie it all together. (The G Linaccess source and instructions for installation are available at http://www.wearcam.org/glinaccess/).

The immediate usefulness of an open system like Linux is apparent: free software has provided Professor Mann and his students with an easily-modified toolkit they can hack as readily as they have the hardware that comprises their wearable computers.

There's also a second angle, though, with more radical ramifications.

Not content to merely make computers wearable, Professor Mann has a more ambitious plan to eliminate "applications" and metaphors from wearable computing and that's where, for one last time, Microsoft came in at the conference.

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