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Meet the World’s Original Cyborg

Steve Mann has been melding biology and technology for three decades: man and machine, with himself as guinea pig. Now, with “smart” glasses poised to change the way we see the world, will he finally get his due?

Photographed by Matt Barnes

One summer night in Paris not long ago, Steve Mann took his wife and kids to the McDonald’s near the Champs-Élysées. “Normally we’d be looking for some fine cuisine,” he recalls, “but the kids saw the McDonald’s arches and they already made up their minds.” They were in the midst of a busy two-week vacation, and after another long day of sight-seeinga river cruise, eight museumsthey were hungry.

As Mann waited in line to order, a clean-cut McDonald’s worker in a button-up blue shirt and tie asked him about his unusual eyewear: a na­r­row aluminum headband with a tiny computer lens fixed snugly against his right eye. Mann, a gangly, balding 50-year-old inventor, gets this question a lot because, for the past 34 years, he’s been living as a cyborg.

After decades of being a sci-fi fantasy, the age of cyborgs is dawning. For most people this means anticipating the year’s game-changing arrival of Google Glass, the sleek eyewear with a built-in display screen that will let you snap photos, shoot videos, and surf the Web with the ease of voice commands and finger swipes. In recent months Glass has inspired raves and revulsion about how wearable computing might transform our lives. But there’s one person who already has insight, who’s been occupying this seemingly faraway galaxy since a long, long time ago.

Considered the father of wearable com­puting, Mann lives in the upper atmosphere of the geek elite among luminaries such as artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. He’s famous not only for inventing the world’s first Internet eyeglasses, EyeTap, but for wearing them, pretty much 24/7, for decades. Yes, decades.

Like Google Glass, Mann’s innovations are able to surf the Web and record his everyday experiences. But as he shows me during a recent visit in Toronto, that just scratches the surface. By creating a computer-generated display of what he’s viewing, he’s also able to modify what he sees—say, sharpening his view of something in the distance or overlaying relevant data on an image, like the name of someone he’s talking to. His device has also gotten progressively slimmer over time, shrinking down from what looked like a toaster helmet to the sleek eyewear that, for added security, is now attached to his head. And, yeah, it still looks pretty weird; weird enough that Mann carries around a doctor’s note OKing the device just in case anyone—like the guy at McDonald’s—gets suspicious.

But on that fateful day in July 2012, the note didn’t sufficiently allay the staff’s concerns. While Mann and his family were eating, two other employees closed in. Mann, they said, wasn’t allowed to take photos or videos in the restaurant without authorization. Mann says when one tried to pull the device from his face, he waved his doctor’s note again, explaining that it couldn’t be removed from his face without special tools. But the workers tore the note into shreds and shoved the cyborg out the door into the Paris night.

According to Mann, the digital eyeglass got damaged in the scuffle. But as he dusted himself off, Mann realized it wasn’t destroyed, and he’d managed to capture photos of the altercation as it was in progress. He soon posted the images online, along with a clinically described account of the fracas, with the hopes of bringing his assaulters to justice. One blogger dubbed the incident “the world’s first cybernetic hate crime.”

Over lunch at a crowded pub in Toronto, Mann gets more than a few stares. But given the way he goes to town on his burger and salad, shoving clumps of lettuce into his mouth by hand, he really doesn’t seem to notice, or to care. When asked if he’s bothered by the people ogling his headgear, he ignores the question—as if transmitting, telepathically, “Who gives a shit?”

Mann teaches engineering at the University of Toronto, and after lunch I follow as he briskly strides to his workshop up the street. Though a master of technology, he’s awkward with human interactions and tends to split abruptly without notice. The two floors of his studio are cluttered with strange machines and mannequin heads. Mann shows me the various iterations of the EyeTap glasses he’s developed over the years. One looks like a helmet worn by the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with lenses and wires attached. “Even in early childhood,” he tells me, “I took to this idea of attaching things to my body.”

Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Mann tinkered alongside his grandfather, a refrigeration engineer and welder, building makeshift engines and flyable toy planes. Fascinated by video cameras, which were unwieldy at the time, the intrepid Mann mounted one to a backpack so he could tote it around his neighborhood, filming his surroundings. Before long he had mounted a lens to a helmet and a small computer display, which hung in front of his eyes as he went about his daily life.

“The world looked like a television image,” Mann recalls, “except that I could change how it looked by building different electric circuits to manipulate it,” adjusting, say, the contrast just as if he were tweaking the settings on his TV. The mission was to enable people, as he puts it, to “see better”—not just the visually impaired, but anyone. By the early 1980s, he was wearing his funky computerized eyewear full-time.

When I first encountered Mann in the late ’90s, he’d become one of the more eccentric visionaries in an increasingly eccentric digital age. Even Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s esteemed Media Lab, where Mann earned his doctorate and refined his wearable computers, called Mann “someone on the lunatic fringe”—but in a good way. Using the nascent Internet, Mann could now transmit pictures from his EyeTap to, for example, get his wife’s opinion on which pieces of fruit to buy at the market. Once an outcast for his wares, Mann was on the cusp of some tidal future quickly crashing in. “In the ’70s people would see me wearing these things and walk across the street to avoid me,” he says. “Now I get kids running over and saying, ‘Hey, can I play with that?’ ”

Today Mann is wearing the fourth-generation version of the EyeTap glasses. Mounted on the aluminum frame is a computer-controlled laser light source, which causes his right eye to function like both a camera and a display. Rays of light bounce off the tiny piece of glass that hangs at a 45-degree angle from his eye and are processed by a small computer in the headgear, which is powered by batteries or a phone. Light rays are then redrawn on the glass eye in front of his face. He controls it with his phone through voice or text commands. When connected to an iPhone, the device becomes what Mann calls an Eye Phone, giving it the same capabilities of messaging and apps. For example, he can display names of places he’s passing in the street or call up a shopping list as he steps into the grocery store.

Whenever I compare his invention to Google Glass, Mann fires a telepathic dart of frustration. Google’s eyewear, which was created decades after Mann’s, simply frees up your hands from most of the stuff you normally do on your phone—snapping pictures and video, looking up directions, surfing the Web—by displaying those applications on a small screen that hangs just above your eye. Features are engaged by colloquial voice commands (“OK, Glass…take a photo”) or a slight swipe of your fingers along the frame.

Mann’s device is less an accessory than a way to see the world. When looking through it, you are seeing a three-dimensional computer-generated version of reality, created by the quickly drawn laser rays. As a result, the “reality” you see can be augmented and manipulated in a way Google Glass can’t provide. “We focus more on functionality than taste,” Mann’s graduate assistant Raymond Lo tells me. “Google just wants to make it sexy and pretty: it’s not of much use at this time.”

To show me the technology’s capabilities, Lo slips me into a pair of Space-Glasses, a commercial version of the product that will be available in April for $667. Mann has a stake in the glasses, which are being marketed as a kind of Trekkier alternative to Google Glass. Looking through them, I see a real-time 3D model of the lab around me. It’s like having an extremely lifelike video game being drawn instantly in front of my eyes. Virtual objects can be overlaid into the world, so that I can, say, play a game of computer chess or sculpt pixilated clay.

In addition to the everyday, purely functional features—like being able to identify people and places—there are trippy manifestations of the technology. Lo hands me a piece of paper that, with the tap of a few computer buttons, displays a video of the movie Toy Story. As I bend the paper, the image bends, too. The possibilities are limited only by imagination. In addition to practical applications, like surrounding a stranger’s face with biographical details drawn from the Internet, Mann tells me, I could simply replace their head with a cartoon character’s. Though Mann’s work predates, and presages, Google’s Glass by at least 20 years, he’s not part of their team and hasn’t been approached by them. When I ask if Google has violated any of the 100 patents he’s filed, he says, matter-of-factly, “They’re probably in violation of some,” but suggests he doesn’t have the money, or the inclination, to pursue them. Anyway, he’s more pissed about McDonald’s.

The fast-food chain, for its part, denied that its staff attacked Mann. The “interaction with Dr. Mann was polite and did not involve a physical altercation,” the company said in a statement. But after he blogged about his alleged assault in France last summer, including photos of the Mickey D’s perpetrators, Mann’s story went viral and he became an online cause célèbre. Geeks called for a boycott. “That a pioneer like Mann would be accosted—in Paris, of all places—is a travesty,” blogged TechCrunch. On KurzweilAI, the blog for noted futurist Ray Kurzweil, Mann was martyred as having suffered the “first attack on a cyborg.”

Mann had mixed feelings about the attention. On one hand, he says he doesn’t “really find myself having an affinity to the term” cyborg. He prefers to see himself as part of a more humanistic pursuit, using computer intelligence not to transform himself into some kind of a machine but rather to enhance his own sense of what it means to be alive. And while Mann hasn’t ruled out the possibility of litigation in the future, it’s not just the alleged assault that bothers him—it’s the hypocrisy he perceives behind it, that McDonald’s didn’t want someone filming them while they are part of a culture of surveillance that’s always watching us.

The word surveillance, he points out, is French for watching from above—police, banks, restaurants, for example, eyeing us from their own cameras. He rails against the ubiquity of QR codes, those Internet icons that you photograph in order to call up advertising or promotional information. Establishments tell consumers to use their cameras to shoot the QR codes but then reprimand or punish them for photographing other things. “When we speak of surveillance, we’re speaking of a social hierarchy,” he says. “They say we’re allowed to watch you, but you’re not allowed to watch us.”

Wearable technology—whether Mann’s or Google’s—is a means to empower ordinary people to watch back. And it isn’t just glasses. In a sense we’ve been using wearables for years—headsets, earpieces, even, one could argue, those chunky calculator watches. Soldiers don exoskeletons and night-vision goggles. Computers and computerized gear are miniaturizing and augmenting our bodies and clothes more and more every year. For Mann the more we gear up, in essence, the better we can fight back.

“We’ve already lost our privacy, because surveillance is becoming very widespread,” he says. “So maybe we should look at a more balanced world. Would you want to live in a world where there’s surveillance only and where there’s the one-sided gaze, or would you rather live in a world in which we’re all seeing clearly?”

Not everyone agrees. There’s already mounting concern over the erosion of privacy due to Google Glass, which will make it even easier for people to photograph or film each other on the sly. Back in New York I get to experience this firsthand when I try on a pair of Google Glass frames myself. Outfitted with my sleek orange rims, I round the block by Chelsea Market, where I’m fashionably ignored by the unfazed city dwellers. With a whisper and swipe, I take indiscriminate shots of passersby—two construction workers talking football, a harried woman on her way to work. There’s nothing incriminating here, but it does feel creepily invasive, way more so than if I were lifting up my iPhone to snap the photos. All things considered, it’s not surprising that a number of establishments have banned their use.

Google has countered by noting that the device’s screen glows when it’s being used for these purposes and that users have to either tap their glasses or issue an audio command—ostensibly alerting those around them—for this to work. Of course, those being observed won’t necessarily discern these cues. And Google recently announced a way to take photos with just a wink (setting off concerns over a next-gen wave of up-skirt photos).

But as Mann tries to use the McDonald’s saga to engage this conversation, some view this pursuit with skepticism. Thad Starner, director of the Contextual Computing Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the technical lead on Google Glass, has been working on wearables for decades as well and considers Mann a provocateur. “I don’t know if it’s performance art or not,” Starner says of the McDonald’s incident. “The question is: Did he amp it up to make the point?”

Early last decade, Mann released a documentary showing him getting thrown out by employees of a Walmart after filming the store’s security cameras with his EyeTap glasses. He’s had similar run-ins with airport security, the Secret Service, and the New York City Police Department.

As bizarre as Mann’s practices may seem, there’s a genuine playfulness and humor behind his Cylon exterior. When I ask him if he thinks technology will get so discreet—say, implants or contact lenses—that we won’t have to wear cyberglasses anymore, he deadpans his response. “I think we’ll always be wearing things,” he says. “At least in Canada. It’s way too cold here.”

At heart he’s still the kid in his grandpa’s garage inventing cool machines. Before leaving, I climb the steps behind him to a rooftop greenhouse, where he keeps one of his proudest accomplishments: a musical instrument called the hydraulophone. Among the dewy plants dripping inside, there’s what looks like a tubular pipe organ hooked up to a hose. Mann sits behind it on a stationary bike that’s attached to the instrument. As he pedals, water shoots out through a series of holes on the pipe. By gently placing his fingers against each stream, he creates a different musical note. He has performed this along with a band he calls the H2Orchestra.

As Mann plays through an ethereal version of my request, “Stairway to Heaven,” he doesn’t sweat the water dousing his pants. He just plays the organ like a mad musical scientist, filling the air with his sounds. For him this kind of moment is what his work is really about: not turning people into machines but creating machines that make people, in a sense, more human, whether they’re playing water music or perceiving the world through a lens. “I think as an inventor, if I can make people’s lives better and allow people to connect to nature,” he tells me when he’s done, “that means a lot.” 

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