Sixth Sense: A Web you can wear
Immersive technology puts the internet even closer than our fingertips.
For all its celebrated omnipresence, the World Wide Web can seem like a closed world unto itself. It’s more portable now, to be sure. But those who visit it still must stare at glowing screens and tune out everything else around them.Skip to next paragraph
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To Pranav Mistry, this all feels highly inconvenient. The postdoctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wants online life to converge with real life, be it during a conversation at a party or a commute on the interstate. His latest project, a “wearable computer” dubbed Sixth Sense, lays out a path toward realizing this “immersive” vision of the Net.
“We like the physical world,” Mr. Mistry says, emphasizing the verb as though speaking on behalf of BlackBerry and iPhone addicts everywhere. “We want to merge the dynamism of the digital world with the objects we’re used to.”
At first glance, Sixth Sense seems disarmingly simple: a Web cam, projector, and battery pack hang around Mistry’s neck on a lanyard. The components, which together cost about $350, plug into an Internet-enabled mobile phone that rests in the wearer’s pocket.
As the device’s name suggests, this straightforward design aims at a rather lofty goal: to make accessing the Internet seamless in ordinary life. People take in sights and smells without a conscious series of instructions. So why should we reach into our pockets to look up information online?
If that’s tough to fathom, consider one of the features already built into the device. Say the wearer goes to the grocery store and picks up a box of cereal from the shelf. The camera sees this action and identifies the product. An Internet search automatically finds its exact specifications, such as the brand or nutrition facts. Then, the projector beams a green or red light onto the item, letting the wearer know if the cereal meets user-defined criteria. A consumer, for instance, might only want to buy a brand that is American-made, packaged in recyclable materials, or high in fiber.
When outside conditions aren’t enough to prompt the Internet search, Sixth Sense makes use of gestures. Tracing a circle on your wrist tells the device to project a digital clock on your arm – the world’s lightest wristwatch, a fan joked. And the most natural function of all might be the way the camera snaps a picture when the wearer frames something with his fingers.
In this early stage, Mistry wraps colored tape around his thumbs and pointer fingers, markers that make them easier for the Web cam to spot.
So far, there are just a handful of online databases that Sixth Sense can fluidly mine for pieces of what Mistry’s MIT adviser, Pattie Maes, calls “instant wisdom.” In addition to grocery store inventories, Mistry has programmed the computer to display book reviews from Amazon.com onto the books themselves, and project video clips about current events onto newspapers.
As slick and automatic as these capabilities might appear, they do not yet offer a significant upgrade over an Internet-enabled cellphone.
But observers are already envisioning future improvements to Sixth Sense that could result in some startling possibilities.
“Its current representation is a pretty fun parlor trick that has the roots of being a transformative capability down the road,” says Jonas Lamis, founder of the advanced technology research and consulting firm SciVestor in Austin, Texas.