Google Wear’s Great Grandparents: A Brief History of Wearable Computers

Posted by Lauren Hall-Stigerts on April 15, 2014 in Editorial, Gaming Lifestyle -- Share:

What felt like a utopian cyberpunk dream is now becoming reality: wearable computers is a topic on everyone’s lips.

Last year we were introduced to Google Glass, the first commercially available optical head-mounted display–which, unfortunately, has since seen a decline in interest. Perhaps it was the wallet-busting price point at $1500, maybe it was the privacy concerns of being recorded incognito, or that electronic consumers were concerned about becoming a negative stereotype.


Google Glass

Google Glass’s technology development has not gone to waste–the Internet recently erupted with news about a smartwatch that’s bound to change the game: Google Android Wear.

The life integration possibilities of Google Wear–and its breakthrough hardware design–have the tech world buzzing. Where previous wearable computers have came close or fallen flat, Google’s latest foray into the contextual Internet of Things has the promise of that techie-connected future on our wrist that we’ve envisioned for so long.

Google Android Wear

How did we get to this point in our wearable computers, and where are we going?

“Computers” and “technology” aren’t the same thing

The definition of wearable computers has shifted over time based on what was available, how far our imagination could stretch, and what we needed the technology to accomplish. Before I press on, let’s make an important distinction between wearable computers and wearable technology.

“Technology” is often synonymous for “computer” these days – you can’t spend a day on the Internet without coming across the word. Camera technology, online technology, video game technology. It’s everywhere!

Train on the back of a semi-truck

Photo Credit: JohnGreyTurner via Compfight cc

But not every technology is driven by computational machines. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines technology as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”. Think about it – that could be a million things that helped bring us to this point in history. The wheel was an important scientific discovery–long before the existence of computers. The steam engine revolutionized the world without a silicon chip. White-Out correction liquid doesn’t require a plug.

A computer, on the other hand, is defined as “an electronic device for storing and processing data”. That would exclude wearable technologies such as spectacles from hundreds of years ago. For the sake of simplicity (with the exception of one or two critical early inventions), I’m going to focus on wearable computers.

Qing Dynasty counts on their fingers

OK, I’m going to break away from the “computer” for a second to discuss important (or just plain cool) pieces of wearable technology. The earliest record dates back to the 1600s – yes, before electricity. China’s Qing Dynasty saw the creation of a tiny seven-rodded abacus with microscopic beads that could only be manipulated using a needle, most likely employed by traders.

Chinese abacus ring

The first wrist watch

The first wearable wrist watch was created a few hundred years later, by taking a woman’s pocket watch and attaching it as a bracelet chain commissioned by the Queen of Naples in 1810. (Fun fact: Queen Caroline Murat was Napoleon’s younger sister.) She developed a close friendship with Swiss clock manufacturer Breguet, who designed an egg-shaped clock face to fit on a bracelet of human hair entwined with gold thread.

Queen of Naples

Move over, FitBit – our hearts will go on

Watches were met with criticism from men of the 19th century as a women’s fashion fad that would pass. The next innovation in wearable technology didn’t arrive for almost another 150 years – and it was arguably one of the most important inventions in wearable health monitoring.

External Pacemaker

Photo: Journal of Applied Clinical Medical Physics, Vol 11, No 1 (2010)

Electrical biomedical engineer John Hopps was researching hypothermia and using radio frequencies to restore body temperature when he unexpectedly invented the external heart pacemaker. The device could detect when the heart dropped below acceptable body temperatures and, using electronic means, would “shock” the heart into the proper heart rate. Swedish engineers were able to reduce the size of the pacemaker to fit underneath chest skin in 1958, eight years after Hopps’ invention.

TWIST! Hopps became a candidate for his own invention in the 1980s and was even able to detect when the device was beginning to reach its end of life. He received a second pacemaker that carried him through until his death in 1998.

Hopps receives all the glory for the first wearable pacemaker–but he was not the first to invent a pacemaker device. New York cardiologist Albert Hyman and his brother Charles constructed the first pacemaker – an electro-mechanical device that, archaic-looking by today’s standards, would deliver a shock through a needle inserted through the chest cavity by means of a hand crank. However, this device was quite bulky and unwearable. (I’m not just talking about a bulky fashion faux-pas here, either.)

Hyman Pacemaker

Photo: Pacemaker History

Speaking of hearts, how about the invention of an artificial one? Yeah, that’s one amazing wearable computer – one that single-handedly sustains life.

Although there have been many trials and errors in installing artificial hearts since the 1940s, the first successful implant didn’t arrive until 1982. Many versions were rejected by the human body until Robert Jarvik, a biomedical researcher, created a pneumatic device based on previous designs. The first patient on the “Jarvik-7” survived 112 days on the device and the second survived 620 days.

Artificial Heart

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI)

Spy games

Casino gambling was seeing great popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and mathematicians Edward Thorp & Claude Shannon developed a timed device to cheat the roulette tables. A timing mechanism would relay information between two devices, one hidden in the base of a shoe and the other in a cigarette pack.

Roulette cheating computer in a shoe

Photo: Eyetap

Thorp cashed in on the secrets of casino cheating by releasing a book called Beat the Dealer in 1962–also where he famously proved a Blackjack Dealer can be beat by card counting! Edward considers himself to be the inventor of the first “wearable computer” – a claim that is met with mixed reactions. Some say that his timing device was not a wearable computer because it only had one function and couldn’t be repurposed while it was worn.

And how about spy watches? No, I’m not talking about stalking your ex on your Google Wear Facebook app. Video recording activity, catching bad guys, you get the idea.

Subminiature spy camera watches began as a novelty and worked their way into spy-tech vocabulary. The first “Submini” wrist cameras started in 1907 as a pocket watch. However, one merely needed to look at the watch’s face to realize it was a video recording device: the hands were stuck at 10:07 for the best viewing angle. Not stealthy.

pocket watch camera

The Steineck Camera Watch from the 1940s was a complex device for its time. Over nine layers of mechanical surfaces created a camera where the photographer could view his or her subject through a viewfinder on the side. The Steineck doesn’t even attempt to hide its nature, so it probably wasn’t too popular with true spies.

subcamera video watch

The 1955 Protona Minifon P55 Recorder Wristwatch got a little closer to true spy action – but the giant recorder carrying case might have scared off James Bond. (Just think of an ameteur spy awkwardly trying to hold onto the recorder box in her wristwatch hand while concealing the nature of the device. Hilarity ensues.)

Protona Minifon P55 Recorder Watch

This smartwatch had one function: to record sound. A microphone shell concealed the recorder device and the watch face didn’t actually work. It sold for around $350 in 1955, which, as you can imagine, was a grip of cash back then.

(Big thanks to the Watchismo blog for the above information and images.)

It’s about time for the first commercial smartwatches

The more general-purpose wearable computers were born in the 1980s. (Perhaps inspired by an uprise in the the cyberpunk genre of technologically-enhanced humans? It was only a matter of time, really.) Technology was getting smaller, smarter, and more powerful–and with the rise of the personal computer we saw the the potential of everyday technology.

Casio Databank Watch

Watches of the 1980s might make you think of angular Casio faces, LCD screens, digital numbers, mini keyboards, and wrist-attached calculators. They were bulky things that had focused, utilitarian features and computational power. This era of wearable technology was inspired in part by a renewed interest in sending humans into space, pushing the boundaries of what technology could do and expanding our imaginations.

Wear your blog on your sleeve

Enter Steve Mann, the “Godfather of Wearable Technology”. Mann is recognized for a number of different computer technologies during his time at MIT in the 1980s and 1990s, including but not limited to a virtually invisible interface between human and machine, a musical instrument that made sounds using hydraulic fluid, and “Sousveillance” – wearable technology that logs life from the wearer’s perspective. (Also called “lifelogging”.)

Steve Mann Wearable Technology

Mann’s early work in the 1980s using a backpack-mounted multimedia computer to video record activity led to the development of the first wearable wireless camera in 1994. You’d think that this was the inspiration for Google Glass – but that actually came earlier in 1989 with Mann’s PrivateEye device. A head-mounted display covered one eye with a projection of what the wearer would otherwise see out of that eye, and it contained an overlay with additional information on what you’re viewing. Some of the best applications for it were technical diagrams used by engineers in the field–technology that was supported by major manufacturers like Boeing.

Wearable computers like Google Wear have been over 400 years in the making, and now with technology exponentially improving every week, just think of what our wrists (and other body parts) will be telling us in the next 40 years to come.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wearable computer’s history. Which wearable computers have been a turning point to get us where we’re going today?

Written by

Lauren is a lifelong gaming fan. She expresses her love of strong female pop-culture characters by costuming at conventions. Internet marketing consulting, playing the clarinet and sax, practicing martial arts, and geeking out over tea keeps her busy the rest of the time. Find more of her shenanigans on Twitter @hallstigerts and Google+!

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