The IFTF Blog
Before Body Area Networks
This story first appeared in the inaugural issue of IFTF's magazine, Future Now.
Thomas Zimmerman’s Vision of the Connected Self
Twenty years ago in a lab at MIT, an engineer and inventor with an interest in rock guitar was exploring ways to bring computers, people, and musical instruments closer together. Joining a research team that had developed a way for computers to map the movements of a musician’s hands across an instrument, he came up with a new breakthrough: he created the foundation for what we now call “body area networks.”
Thomas Zimmerman’s 1995 work with his MIT Media Labs colleagues Neil Gershenfeld and Joe Paradiso (also with the cooperation of cellist Yo Yo Ma, who allowed his bow to be fitted with a sensor) led them to see how the human body itself could be used like an antenna to wirelessly send and receive data. Although the initial inspiration was musical, they realized that this had implications for all sorts of non-musical things. In a demonstration, Zimmerman built a system that could send a digital business card between two people with just a handshake. Naming this invention the “Personal Area Network” (PAN), Zimmerman imagined a cloud of data around each person carrying a PAN device in their pocket. If body area networks can be said to have a founding father, Zimmerman is it.
When he invented the first PAN in the mid 1990s Zimmerman was already a veteran of Atari and a founding member with computer scientist Jaron Lanier of one of the first virtual reality product makers—VPL Research. Zimmerman was probably best known, however, as inventor of the DataGlove, a real glove fitted with electronic sensors that made its movements recognizable by a computer. The DataGlove was the first device that enabled the human hand to move around in cyberspace. For Zimmerman, the coolest application was its utility in strumming an air guitar. The invention of the DataGlove defined the direction of his later research— finding practical ways to make communications between people easier by simplifying how we interact with computers.
The Personal Area Network opened up the potential for what Zimmerman calls a world of “contagious information” that effortlessly travels in an electric cloud and no longer needs to be manually tapped out on screens and keyboards. The data in that cloud could be read by nearby devices to automatically unlock doors, swap personal or business information, turn on lights, even provide health status updates. Zimmerman imagined computers that log you on as soon as you come within a meter of them, log themselves off when you walk away, and cars that start when they recognize your electronic field. A key to the PAN is that it requires only minimal hardware and generates a low energy electronic field, making it inexpensive and lightweight. Zimmerman foresees a day when everyone will have a Personal Area Network embedded in their smartphones.
It’s not difficult to imagine how “contagious information” generated by body area networks could change not just our relationship with machines, but our view of our bodies themselves. We’ll view our bodies as parts of computer networks, altering the way we interact in social environments such as dating, play, business, and school.
Now a research staff member at IBM Research-Almaden in Silicon Valley, Zimmerman continues his research on body area networks. And he says he’s still fascinated by the musical side of his work. He’s currently working on improving a set of electronic drums that can be played without touching them.
The New Body Language research is collected in its entirety in our inaugural issue of Future Now, IFTF’s new print magazine.
Most pieces in this issue focus on the human side of Human+Machine Symbiosis—how body area networks will augment the intentions and expressions that play out in our everyday lives. Some pieces illuminate the subtle, even invisible technologies that broker our outrageous level of connection—the machines that feed off our passively generated data and varying motivations. Together, they create a portrait of how and why we’ll express ourselves with this new body language in the next decade.
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