Sixth Sense: the future of wearable technology

12 Mar 2009

A combination of off-the-shelf devices costing a mere US$350 – a webcam, portable battery-powered projection system and a mobile handset – has taken the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference by storm, demonstrating the future of wearable technology, dubbed ‘sixth sense’, where the web and real-life objects meet.

Pattie Maes from the Fluid Interface Group, which is part of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, left audience members in awe as she talked them through a demonstration of this new technology.

With coloured markers on the tips of his thumbs and forefingers, Pranav Mistry, the researcher behind the project, showed how the wearer could take photographs simply by using the universal gesture of thumbs and forefingers forming a frame in front of the subject.

The webcam captures the coloured markers and transmits the information to the mobile handset, which then interprets them as four corners and the camera function is triggered.

Telling time can also be done in much the same way. Mistry used his finger to draw a circle on his wrist, which was interpreted as telling the time and the portable projector displays a virtual watch in response.

One of the uses that drew gasps from the audience was the ‘handphone’; with no other surface readily available, Mistry projected the phone’s dial pad onto the palm of his hand, touching the numbers to dial and make a call.

While the fundamental concepts of this may seem a little bit similar to the projection and interactivity of Microsoft’s Surface technology, most of the functionality of so-called ‘sixth-sense’ technology is, in fact, related to access to meta-information, explained Maes.

This is about seamless access to relevant information, she said, giving the example of a shopper choosing between paper towels. Using image recognition or marker technology, the projected alert will overlay a green button when it recognises the product, and pressing the green button brings up information from the web that can help the consumer with their choice.

This can be combined with personal preferences to search out the relevant information, said Maes. So, for example, book shopping could display reviews and recommendations, with access to further information on annotations etc.

Mistry also demonstrated how this technology could interact with your daily paper: information is never stale as the ‘sixth sense’ scans and projects related video, imagery of information gathered from the web onto your news stories.

As amazing as Media Lab’s technology is, Maes said it is a work in progress and is currently being worked on to fine tune and improve the technology and appearance.

Pictured: Patti Maes demos the future of wearable technology at TED

Photo courtesy of James Duncan Davidson for TED