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July 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Terminator as Inspiration: Thad Starner Interview
SFRevu Interview PubDate: 07/01/03
Interview by Alex Lightman
image by Sam Ogden

Thad Starner is one of the pioneers of wearable computing and has authored over 70 technical publications on mobile computing, computer vision, augmented environments, and pattern recognition.

T3 Film Review: T3: Rise of the Machines
Are we building Skynet: How Close is Judgement Day?
Is Resistance Futile? We interview Wearable Computing Guru: Thad Starner.

A professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, has been using a wearable computer as part of his everyday life since 1993 - the longest such experiment in augmented reality we know of.

Why has Starner gone Borg? What's life with on demand information like? Will we all follow his lead someday...and is resistance futile? Alex Lightman, also a wearable computer convert (and CEO of Charmed Technology http://www.charmed.com) interviews Professor Starner as part of our T3 coverage.

Dr. Thad Starner's Home Page: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/fac/Thad.Starner/

What did you experience from the Terminator movies that influenced your career and work?

I saw the original Terminator in 1989 for the second time. What struck me was the view as seen from Schwarzenegger's eyes - the computer interface was overlaid on his view of the real world. This "augmented reality" seemed like a great method of being able to use your computer while doing other tasks. I immediately went to work trying to make such a computer interface but did not have something I could actually use until 1993. My original application was being able to take good notes in my MIT classes while simultaneously still having enough time and brain power to actually understand the material. I had previously found that I could either understand the material or take good notes, but not both.

How have you changed your thinking about wearable computers and augmented reality over the years?

My first paper on wearables, called "The Cyborgs Are Coming," was sent to Wired magazine in 1993. While Wired did not publish it, copies still exist on the web as Media Lab technical report TR-318, and my thoughts from then can be compared to my writings today. Actually, let me go ahead and take a look at it here on my HUD. ... It seems many of the ideas have remained the same, but, given that today's hardware allows us to make them practical, a lot of the details have changed.

Sometimes when I give talks, I show the bar scene in the opening minutes of T2 to represent the advantages of wearable computers. As the T-101 enters the bar, different items seem to be outlined in the T-100's view, and information is displayed about each item as it is recognized. One can imagine the same sort of information provided for a wearable user. Imagine walking into a wine store and, as you look at the racks, the wines that have been highly reviewed seem to glow. Gesturing to the wine bottle "clicks" on it and displays a web page about that wine (thanks to Brad Rhodes for this example). Creating this particular interface is very difficult, but I use related agents on my wearable computer today to help me remember people's names, tasks, and appointments.

When do you think we will be able to create cybernetic organisms?

We already have. There are a surprising number of computer-augmented people already wandering the planet. Modern neuroprosthetics allow for artificial ears and, recently, artificial eyes. Even pacemakers have been computerized such that performance data can be uploaded to a doctor by holding a telephone handset to the user's chest. There are even systems that allow reprogramming the pacemaker from a PDA. Less invasively, most people in technological society currently carry cellular phones - which, these days, are becoming wearable computers.

Could humans use wearable computers to keep pace with T-101s and T-Xs?

Thad Starner is an Assistant Professor in Georgia Tech's College of Computing, where he founded and directs the Contextual Computing Group. Thad holds four degrees from MIT, including his PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory in 1999.

Starner co-founded the IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) and is one of the founding members of the IEEE Technical Committee on the subject.

His work includes a gloveless, real-time sign language recognizer; intelligent agents in support of everyday memory; theoretical frameworks for power generation and heat dissipation for wearables; several augmented realities; and a computer-vision based interactive workbench for which he received a "best paper" award at VR2000.

I believe that a symbiosis can be created between humans and computers that is more powerful than either alone. For example, computers are very good at capturing information and storing it for later retrieval. However, computers are particularly bad at determining the relevancy or usefulness of a given piece of information. We, on the other hand, can see a small piece of information, such as a scrap of a second grade report card, and associate this inadvertant reminder with the teachers' names, important events during that year, and the fact that we should remember to call one of our former classmates about a current business deal. Researchers in artificial intelligence have much work to do before computers can emulate such thought processes.

However, I believe we can create interfaces that leverage the perfect memory of the computer with the rapid recognition and information association abilities of the human mind.

What do you think the impact of science fiction will be on the shape of the 21st century?

I believe the role of science fiction is to illustrate the way the future SHOULD be and to warn against the way the future COULD be. The top scientists and science fiction writers continuously intermingle and exchange ideas. (In fact, last weekend, Hugo award winner Vernor Vinge and I were discussing the potential subtexts in his upcoming book.) In creating works of fiction that makes scientific ideas and their potential social impact accessible, science fiction writers engage the public in an ongoing discussion as to the role research should play in our future.

2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe