Steve Mann

Researcher and inventor
Steve Mann


The concept of wearable technology is finally gaining some traction. Apple finally entered the smart watch party and Google’s high profile Glass project very nearly took off. But it’s not a new idea - in fact, it was pioneered by the American researcher and inventor Steve Mann in 1981.
Steve Mann Overview ‧ read
Mann is often referred to as “ the father of wearable computing ,” in recognition of his invention of the first wearable general-purpose computer in 1981. And that’s not all this fascinating professor of computer engineering has come up with. Mann is also credited with inventing modern High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging methods, natural user interfaces, ‘sousveillance,’ and many more techniques that seem to have come from the future.

But as someone who lives on the furthest edge of technological innovation, Mann has also suffered attacks on his personal rights - leading him to begin new research into surveillance, privacy and “cyborg-law.” Here’s our quick-read biography of Steve Mann.

Building the first wearable computer

Steve Mann was born in Ontario, Canada in 1962. He invented the first general-purpose wearable computer in 1981, while still in high school. The computer was mounted in a steel-framed backpack, while the display was a CRT viewfinder from a camera attached to a helmet. Mann used the computer to control photographic equipment. The device was called EyeTap . Newer generations of the EyeTap are still in production.

Mann studied engineering at the McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and it’s safe to say he’s well educated. Mann graduated from McMaster with a BSc degree in 1987, a B.Eng in 1989 and an M.Eng in 1992. He also received a PhD in Media Arts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1997.

Steve Mann founds wearable computing research group

While at MIT, Mann’s work was the basis of a brand new research group at the university’s Media Lab: Wearable Computing.

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte described Mann’s ideas as “very much on the lunatic fringe… it’s one of the best examples of where somebody brought with them an extraordinarily interesting seed and now… people are working on wearable computers all over the place.”

HDR and Steve Mann’s other inventions

HDR is a common smartphone camera feature today, which improves the light-to-dark ratio in photographs. The current ‘Global HDR’ method works by taking three separate digital photos: one under-exposed, one over-exposed, and another in between. A composite is then made of the three images to maximize the ‘dynamic range’ of light. And it was invented by none other than Steve Mann , at the MIT Media Lab in 1998.

Mann’s other inventions and ideas include:
  • Chirplet transform , a method of signal processing.
  • Video orbits , a method of stitching together multiple photos to produce one panoramic image.
  • Natural user interfaces, a type of computer interface that removes the need for text commands or peripherals like the mouse. Well-known examples in use today include multi-touch screens in smartphones and Microsoft’s Kinect.

‘Sousveillance’ inverts surveillance

Mann also coined the term ‘sousveillance,’ which is the recording of an activity by the participant. It’s commonly used to mean the inverse of surveillance. Instead of being watched from above by higher authorities, participants watch those higher authorities.

Sousveillance can include visual and audio monitoring of activities, often from a first-person perspective using wearable devices. It can therefore put power back into the hands of individuals under surveillance. For example, police brutality has often been uncovered by citizens recording their encounters using digital devices.

Mann sees potential in sousveillance for “a transition from our one-sided surveillance society back to a situation akin to olden times, when the sheriff could see what everyone was doing AND everyone could see what the sheriff was doing. ” In our current climate of mass government surveillance, it would be a welcome transition.

Fighting back against ‘McVeillance’

Because he wears a digital eye glass every day, Mann has been called the “world’s first cyborg” - and was also the victim of the “world’s first cybernetic hate crime.”

While eating with his family in a McDonald’s in France, three employees took exception to Mann’s EyeTap device and tried to forcibly remove it from his head. Mann was then ejected from the restaurant. Mann has also been stopped by New York City police, the Secret Service, and by numerous airport security guards. They obviously don’t like being under sousveillance.

Mann has coined the term ‘McVeillance’ to describe “one-sided sight,” or how authorities are “watching everyone while forbidding them from watching back.”

In response to this, Mann has teamed up with the IEEE and ACLU to propose the Mann-Wassell law against the prevention of sousveillance.

Mann is a true visionary

Steve Mann has made incredible contributions to everyday technology. He’s invented not only new devices, but new kinds of devices. Mann’s unique perspective has also given us new words - because as the world’s first cyborg (a term Mann rejects ), he has created a new kind of human experience.

It also reveals a lot about our surveillance society. Mann has said he is “often told only criminals were afraid of cameras (by store employees), but then I was told that I couldn't record in those stores.” The hypocrisy is plain to see. The state and corporations believe they have the right to record others, while being protected from being recorded themselves.

Yet rather than sue his attackers, Mann is continuing to shape the world around him through his inventions and research - just as he always has.

Featured image: “Mann Glass Eye 1999” by Glogger is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.