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Augmenting ag reality with wearables

Maribeth Gandy, director of the Georgia Tech University Interactive Media Technology Center, has been conducting research on wearable computer and augmented reality technology for almost two decades. She's worked extensively with other experts in the field, one of whom -- Thad Starner -- is currently a technical lead for Google Glass, that company's new wearable computer. I recently spoke with her about the state of the wearable computing sector, its history and future, particularly in the agriculture industry.

JC: Talk about the history of wearable computing and how industries like agriculture have shaped their development.

MG: Some of this technology's been around for 20 years. We've had some great ideas for a while. It's one thing to have a prototype to test on a limited basis, but a whole other thing to deploy it on a large scale. That's where we are now -- putting resources into making the technology affordable for people and putting into practice ideas from 20 years of research, especially in the areas of manufacturing, machinery maintenance and repair, and agriculture.

JC: What are some of the ways industries like agriculture have shaped today's wearable computer?

MG: Industrial uses were the first obvious applications for these devices: the hands-free application where you're always connected to your computing device. Basically, it's augmenting your senses and cognition with this device. What better place to do that than work, where somebody's trying to repair or build a device, or diagnose a problem with machinery. And, a lot of times, these are harsh environments where you need to have it there and part of you all the time. It's a lot of the 'big win' now, being able to take information, be it sensor data from moisture sensors in the field or data from equipment, for example. You can take that data and be able to access it in its place, integrate it into the real world, diagnose problems, and do a better job of planning what you need to do next. Agriculture is a really great application for emerging wearable computers.

JC: What are some of the concerns you hear about wearables, and how do you address these?

MG: There are a lot of cultural and societal issues with wearable computing. You're asking people to wear something, and I think people equate it with science fiction. There is this fear. This technology is on your body and you're connected to it all of the time. But smartphones are a limited experience. To really realize the power of mobile computing, it needs to be a wearable model. The issue of who owns data and where it's stored is of huge concern for all types of technology we have now, from mobile devices and DVRs to your computer at work and the cloud. In terms of 'Big Brother,' of course, that's being talked about a lot. But, we're getting a lot of power in our hands now . . . so much so that there's now talk of 'Little Brother.' We have the capacity to build our own systems and host our own data. A lot of people in the wearable computer industry in the past have been really paranoid and focused on privacy, but they like the idea of having the device on them. They know where it is, and they can control it.

JC: What do you mean by 'Little Brother' and what's it got to do with wearables?

MG: This isn't about embedding some technology within you. This is a tool actually giving you the power. It's not just a piece of hardware, but how you can author applications for these platforms. The Web is an important part of that. Think about how egalitarian the Web is. If I have a cool idea for a startup, I can make it happen. We're seeing a joining of new modalities for input and output like Google Glass meeting with the Web. It's not about you getting the hardware and being beholden to a company. It's about having access to an ecosystem. Maybe on your farm, you have a need for something you could do with a wearable application. Ideally, you should be able to make it yourself, or maybe piece together existing parts to do that. It's letting you control the technology. It's part of the 'Maker Movement.' Not only will it be easy to make my own software, but it can be mine, and I can control it.

JC: For some, there's a kind of fear of new technology like this, especially when it marks a big jump from current systems, like wearables. What do you say to people who are skeptical about devices like these?

MG: I'm not one to dismiss anything traditional. Of course, there are certain skills we want to preserve. I'm not saying we should just embrace all technology. On the other hand, this has been going on since the dawn of time. There are always old skills that die out over time. Technology doesn't mean wearable computers. It means fire. We've always been losing abilities to do things. It's a shame not many people know how to shoe a horse anymore. But, to move forward, we need to learn. I'm not one to say technology solves all of our problems. But an increasingly connected digital life will start to change how I interact with people. Look at kids who are 14 today. They are definitely different than we were at 14. Is it bad? I don't know. There's always been this mistrust of new technology. We have to think about ethics, privacy, quality of life and how we want our society to be. But, wearables, for example, are bringing the digital world into our world, which I think is really going to help us. Right now, you're either in the digital world or the real world. This combines them. Now, it's just the world.

JC: What's the future of wearable technology?

MG: I would say that no one really knows. If you asked somebody in 1995 what the Web was going to be, we couldn't know. People will be so transformed by this technology, our culture will change, the way we behave will change, and the things we do will change. Think about the way we've been transformed by social media. I don't think anyone could've predicted that. When we talk about augmented reality and wearables, there are the obvious things like helping a guy repair an engine or helping somebody navigate in the world. But there will be the unexpected applications. Think if you tried to explain Facebook to somebody in 1970: They wouldn't even know what you're talking about. So, with this technology, we don't even know what the future holds. That's what's really exciting to me.

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