Cyborg Swarms and Wearable Communities
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Jun 03 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Researchers are exploring a new social realm that integrates instead of separates cyberspace and face-to-face space.

It is possible today to equip your MP3 player with off the shelf wireless capabilities and to create ad-hoc WiFi or Bluetooth networks in automatic cooperation with similarly equipped devices within a few. When you stop to talk with a friend, your MP3 players could automatically exchange playlists.

Collaborative filtering algorithms similar to those used by Amazon could process the information you accumulate during the day and recommend music you might like to hear or people you ought to meet. Your devices could expose linkages between your social networks, letting each participant in a face-to-face conversation know who they have in common.

Add the kind of reputation systems that have surfaced on eBay or Slashdot, and even wilder interactions become possible. Imagine what might happen if you pass within range of someone you don't know, but who is recommended by three people in your most trusted social network.


When I found out that groups of computer scientists have been studying the social effects of ad-hoc mobile networks, I immediately wanted to find out more. Over the years, I've developed a nose for those places where the future shows up first. Right now, one of those places is the Wearable Computing Laboratory at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Gerd Kortuem, Zary Segall, Jay Schneider, Steve Fickas, and a small community of graduate students at the Wearable Computing Laboratory at the University of Oregon are exploring a new social realm that integrates instead of separates cyberspace and face-to-face space. The Oregon researchers combine wearable computers, ad-hoc wireless networks, and identity and reputation protocols in order to create the conditions for the social phenomena they call "wearable communities." The researchers use (that is, they wear) the devices they develop, and are attempting to use them to augment rather than replace face-to-face interaction.

The first experimental wearable communities today are confined to a few dozen researchers at university or commercial R&D laboratories. Keep in mind that there was a time at the beginning of the growth curve for online communities when people could read every posting on Usenet every day. The World Wide Web started on a single desktop in Switzerland. At one point, there was only one website in California. If it's social and it can be transported through communication networks, local outbreaks can tip into global epidemics in a matter of hours.


From the telephone to the Internet, the human need for social communication has driven the rapid growth and accelerated evolution of those information technologies that can amplify the power of social networks. The telegraph and the telephone connected people any place on earth to people in any other place, in real time. Virtual communities enabled millions of people around the world to socialize and collaborate around shared interests.

But telephones and online social networks separate people from their local surroundings and the people who are physically present with them. Online societies take people out of the context of their family or geographic community. Wearable communities, as envisioned by Kortuem and his colleagues, could provide new opportunities for community-building in the world of face-to-face encounters by bringing together people who did not know each other previously and by providing opportunities for people who know each other to create, exchange, and share public goods.

Wearable computing is an old dream, going back to the 1960s research by Ivan Sutherland, the man who created computer graphics as we know them. Sutherland's vision had to wait for Moore's law to make wearable computers feasible. The coming of the modern "cyborgs" was heralded by the always-on webcam of Steve Mann, a student at the MIT Media Lab who wore a personal area network of computers everywhere he went, equipped with wireless link to the Web, seeing the world through a video camera.

The Borg

In 1994, Mann started streaming everything he saw, heard, and typed to the Web in real time. Mann now teaches at the University of Toronto, where his community of mobile cyborg journalists swarmed a political demonstration that turned violent. Another MIT student who wore his computer all the time, Thad Starner, wrote of using instant messaging to keep in real-time contact with other cyborgs on the MIT campus.

"Cyborgs" like Mann "encapsulate" themselves in their wearable devices by seeing the world through a video head-mounted display. Mann's students in Toronto, Starner's research at Georgia Tech's Contextual Computing group, the Wearable Group at Carnegie Mellon, Jun Rekimoto and colleagues at Sony's Interaction Lab in Tokyo, and the Eugene researchers constitute today's seedbeds of cyborg or wearable communities. According to Kortuem, who came to Oregon from his native Germany, most European research has concentrated on "context aware" mobile devices that evolve from mobile telephones rather than communication-capable portable computing devices. The focus of European research will shift in at least once place soon, when Starner and his research group move to The Swiss Federal Institute of technology in Zurich for seven months.

I was attracted to the work of the group in Eugene because they had both a global vision of wearable communities as a socio-technical phenomena, and an experimental platform for exploring wearable community design in action. Kortuem et al define wearable computers as computers that are constantly on, aware of other devices in the environment, equipped to communicate with other devices wirelessly, and authorized to act automatically and proactively on the wearer's behalf (as in "exchange playlists with anyone in proximity who is a student at this college"). A wearable community requires middleware that enables individuals to form ad-hoc networks and engage in a variety of automated transactions when they come into proximity with others who are similarly equipped:

Ad-hoc and personal-area networks will make it possible for devices belonging to different individuals to communicate during face-to-face encounters, thus enabling new forms of spontaneous social interactions between people who are co-located and organized in an unforeseeable way. We argue that these developments will eventually lead to the emergence of new social networks of like-minded individuals who use their wearable devices to communicate, share information, play games, and coordinate their activities. We call such social networks enabled by wearable computing devices Wearable Communities.

We believe that fully embodied "human moments" are essential for community building. While Virtual Communities on the Internet have led to a separation of physical place and social space, our work is an attempt to reunite the two. At first approximation, we define a Wearable Community as a social network created by or maintained through the use of wearable computing devices. A collection of wearable computer users becomes a Wearable Community when enough people use their wearable computers to form webs of personal relationships.


The Eugene group created a number of applications to demonstrate wearable community capabilities. Pirate applies ideas derived from p2p file sharing and combines them with ad-hoc wearable networks, enabling users' devices to exchange playlists and music recommendations automatically during face-to-face encounters. WALID enables user's devices, mediated by software agents, to negotiate chore-sharing among neighbors: I'm going near the store, and I see you need a bottle of milk; our agents determine that this is a fair trade, and new tasks automatically appear on the to-do list projected in front of our eyes or on our handheld screens. mBazzar is a wearable community application set up by students for students to enable swapping of CDs, books, bikes, furniture, and electronics.

Pirate, WALID, and mBazzar are simple first steps, designed to test both the technical feasibility and social effects of Wearable communities. Off-the-shelf and homebrew wearable computers have achieved about the same beginning-to-be-acceptable price/performance ratio that personal computers reached when Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs showed off the Apple I at Palo Alto's "Homebrew Computing Club."

But the wearable subculture has a powerful accelerant that wasn't available in the early days of PCs. The worldwide virtual community of cyborgs use the Internet to spread knowledge from nodes like Cambridge, Toronto, Atlanta, and Eugene even more quickly than the web itself propagated. Specialty Wearable manufacturers like Hitachi and Xybernaut and personal electronics giants like Sony see wearables as a lucrative market, combining the high-tech lure of entertainment and productivity technology with the marketing networks, product cycles, and economies of scale of fashion. If future technosocial revolutions reflect the dynamics of the growth of the telephone and the Internet, manufacturers of hardware and vendors of software won't be the most effective designers of social applications.

Like virtual communities, wearable communities are likely to be constructed from the grassroots, by people who appropriate the technology for their own social needs.

With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.