A few months ago, I attended Cyborg Camp in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Cyborg Camp is an “unconference,” basically a room full of cyberpunks, mega-nerds, and aspirational coders that gather in an office building to talk about the “future of the relationship between humans and technology.” This event deserves a separate entry, but for now I’d like to recall a particularly evocative thing: that the most heartbreaking thing I saw at Cyborg Camp was an adult man hopelessly tangled in a web of cables.
It was his own off-the-shelf wearable computing system, a gordian thing connecting his outdated Windows smartphone to a pair of personal video glasses via an unwieldy battery pack in his shorts. He was trying to show it off an audience eager to learn about “DIY Wearable Computing.” Unfortunately, it was like watching a third-grader thread his mittens through his winter jacket sleeves.
“Talk about first world problems,” I heard him mutter.
His computer system-cum-outfit was shitty. It was shitty in the way that most things light-years ahead of their time are shitty, because the rush to make them into reality precludes aesthetics. People dedicated to developing new technolgies are largely interested in them working — they can worry about looking good later. As a rule, technology is born ugly, then gets refined: compare the first Apple computers to the blemish-less glass of an iPad screen.
Wearable headset computers don’t really exist to anyone but the people who actively wish for them; those people take matters into their own hands with Sharper Image and Made-in-China techno-junk. Such tangled-cable DIY cyborg hacks are entirely about function, and usually have no concern for design. That blind adherence to pragmatism may even be the defining characteristic of geek fashion. Technical sandals, video glasses, and LED-rigged shoelaces are functional and hideous, whereas fashion (“real” fashion, whatever that means) is beautiful and useless.
The point of this meandering introduction is that we are rapidly approaching an age where this general rule is no longer rock-solid. Consider the Emotiv EPOC. This is an actual, purchasable product: a “neuro-signal acquisition and processing wireless neuroheadset.” When donned atop your dome, the headset’s sensors tune into electric signals produced by your brain, effectively detecting your thoughts, feelings and expressions and allowing you to control a computer with your mind.
[Pause for effect]
This is the first commercially-available device of its kind. It is insanely ahead of its time. Have you ever even heard the word “neuroheadset” before?
And yet, the Emotiv EPOC neuroheadset is pretty beautiful. It’s not an insane mess of multi-colored wires and scary-looking electrodes; it doesn’t even have any wires at all — it connects wirelessly to your computer via a USB dongle. All things considered, it looks more like an expensive pair of headphones than a device that can read your mind.
The EPOC has three different ways of sensing your mental intent. The simplest is that it can monitor facial expressions. This means you can smile and your computer will automatically insert a smiley-face into your chat, for example. It has a gyroscope in the headpiece as well, so you can move your cursor by moving your head. Lastly, it can sense brainwaves — but to do that, you have to map the device to your particular mind by using crazy biofeedback software, concentrating on the idea of “left,” “right,” or “forward” (etc.) while looking at an orange 3D cube on your screen, while the EPOC analyzes your brain activity for each command. After this mapping is finished, EPOC users can ostensibly play Pong or Tetris telepathically.
As it turns out, however, the EPOC doesn’t upset the beautiful-ugly, functional-useless dialectic much: the amount more beautiful it is than most first-generation technologies is about even with the amount less that it is functional. It’s getting tepid reviews from realists, who argue that the EPOC is not the “mass market device for people looking for a turnkey telekinesis solution” that everyone hoped it might be. Rather, “it’s an expensive toy for people to experiment with” and — despite being totally cool — is basically useless.
Regardless, the EPOC is catnip for nerds. If there had been one at Cyborg Camp, it would certainly have been the star of the show — regardless of whether or not it was a nice-looking object. After all, sitting in the conference room at Cyborg Camp, my most prevalent thought wasn’t about the disproportionate presence of dorky video glasses and technical sandals, but one of slightly apprehensive wonder: “shit, these people are the future of everything.” In my mind, the clout of the future is not wealth, but ability to navigate an increasingly digital world (as Douglas Rushkoff says, “program or be programmed“).
We’ll probably all be wearing computers in five years. And just as Luxxotica is making personal 3D glasses for rich people and even Karl Lagerfeld compares Facebook to Brancusi, there will be high-end neuroheadsets being made and modeled at Paris Fashion Week by athletic models in circuit board stilettos.
Talk about first world problems, right?