Back in 2004, I was awakened early one morning by a loud clatter. I ran outside, only to discover that a car had smashed into the corner of my house. As I went to speak with the driver, he threw the car into reverse and sped off, striking me and running over my right foot as I fell to the ground. When his car hit me, I was wearing a computerized-vision system I had invented to give me a better view of the world. The impact and fall injured my leg and also broke my wearable computing system, which normally overwrites its memory buffers and doesn’t permanently record images. But as a result of the damage, it retained pictures of the car’s license plate and driver, who was later identified and arrested thanks to this record of the incident.
Was it blind luck (pardon the expression) that I was wearing this vision-enhancing system at the time of the accident? Not at all: I have been designing, building, and wearing some form of this gear for more than 35 years. I have found these systems to be enormously empowering. For example, when a car’s headlights shine directly into my eyes at night, I can still make out the driver’s face clearly. That’s because the computerized system combines multiple images taken with different exposures before displaying the results to me.
I’ve built dozens of these systems, which improve my vision in multiple ways. Some versions can even take in other spectral bands. If the equipment includes a camera that is sensitive to long-wavelength infrared, for example, I can detect subtle heat signatures, allowing me to see which seats in a lecture hall had just been vacated, or which cars in a parking lot most recently had their engines switched off. Other versions enhance text, making it easy to read signs that would otherwise be too far away to discern or that are printed in languages I don’t know.
Believe me, after you’ve used such eyewear for a while, you don’t want to give up all it offers. Wearing it, however, comes with a price. For one, it marks me as a nerd. For another, the early prototypes were hard to take on and off. These versions had an aluminum frame that wrapped tightly around the wearer’s head, requiring special tools to remove.