Brain interfaces as wearables

There are lots of brain devices, and the book has a whole chapter dedicated to them. Most of these brain devices are passive, merely needing to be near the brain to have whatever effect they are meant to have (the chapter discusses in turn: reading from the brain, writing to the brain, telexperience, telepresence, manifesting thought, virtual sex, piloting a spaceship, and playing an addictive game. It’s a good chapter that never got that much love. Check it out.)

This is a composite SketchUp rendering of the shapes of all wearable brain control devices in the survey.

This is a composite rendering of the shapes of most of the wearable brain control devices in the survey. Who can name the “tophat”?

Since the vast majority of these devices are activated by, well, you know, invisible brain waves, the most that can be pulled from them are sartorial– and social-ness of their industrial design. But there are two with genuine state-change interactions of note for interaction designers.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

The eponymous Game of S05E06 is delivered through a wearable headset. It is a thin band that arcs over the head from ear to ear, with two extensions out in front of the face that project visuals into the wearer’s eyes.

STTNG The Game-02

The only physical interaction with the device is activation, which is accomplished by depressing a momentary button located at the top of one of the temples. It’s a nice placement since the temple affords placing a thumb beneath it to provide a brace against which a forefinger can push the button. And even if you didn’t want to brace with the thumb, the friction of the arc across the head provides enough resistance on its own to keep the thing in place against the pressure. Simple, but notable. Contrast this with the buttons on the wearable control panels that are sometimes quite awkward to press into skin.

Minority Report (2002)

The second is the Halo coercion device from Minority Report. This is barely worth mentioning, since the interaction is by the PreCrime cop, and it is only to extend it from a compact shape to one suitable for placing on a PreCriminal’s head. Push the button and pop! it opens. While it’s actually being worn there is no interacting with it…or much of anything, really.



Head: Y U No house interactions?

There is a solid physiological reason why the head isn’t a common place for interactions, and that’s that raising the hands above the heart requires a small bit of cardiac effort, and wouldn’t be suitable for frequent interactions simply because over time it would add up to work. Google Glass faced similar challenges, and my guess is that’s why it uses a blended interface of voice, head gestures, and a few manual gestures. Relying on purely manual interactions would violate the wearable principle of apposite I/O.

At least as far as sci-fi is telling us, the head is not often a fitting place for manual interactions.

Wearable Control Panels

As I said in the first post of this topic, exosuits and environmental suits are out of the definition of wearable computers. But there is one item commonly found on them that can count as wearable, and that’s the forearm control panels. In the survey these appear in three flavors.

Just Buttons

Fairly late in sci-fi they acknowledged the need for environmental suits, and acknowledged the need for controls on them. The first wearable control panel belongs to the original series of Star Trek, “The Naked Time” S01E04. The sparkly orange suits have a white cuff with a red and a black button. In the opening scene we see Mr. Spock press the red button to communicate with the Enterprise.

This control panel is crap. The buttons are huge momentary buttons that exist without a billet, and would be extremely easy to press accidentally. The cuff is quite loose, meaning Spock or the redshirt have to fumble around to locate it each time. Weeeeaak.

Star Trek (1966)


Some of these problems were solved when another WCP appeared 3 decades later in the the Next Generation movie First Contact.

Star Trek First Contact (1996)


This panel is at least anchored, and located in places that could be located fairly easily via proprioception. It seems to have a facing that acts as a billet, and so might be tough to accidentally activate. It’s counter to its wearer’s social goals, though, since it glows. The colored buttons help to distinguish it when you’re looking at it, but it sure makes it tough to sneak around in darkness. Also, no labels? No labels seems to be a thing with WCPs since even Pixar thought it wasn’t necessary.

The Incredibles (2004)

Admittedly, this WCP belonged to a villain who had no interest in others’ use of it. So that’s at least diegetically excusable.


Hey, Labels, that’d be greeeeeat

Zipping back to the late 1960s, Kubrick’s 2001 nailed most everything. Sartorial, easy to access and use (look, labels! color differentiation! clustering!), social enough for an environmental suit, billeted, and the inputs are nice and discrete, even though as momentary buttons they don’t announce their state. Better would have been toggle buttons.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Also, what the heck does the “IBM” button do, call a customer service representative from space? Embarrassing. What’s next, a huge Mercedez-Benz logo on the chest plate? Actually, no, it’s a Compaq logo.

A monitor on the forearm

The last category of WCP in the survey is seen in Mission to Mars, and it’s a full-color monitor on the forearm.

Mission to Mars


This is problematic for general use and fine for this particular application. These are scientists conducting a near-future trip to Mars, and so having access to rich data is quite important. They’re not facing dangerous Borg-like things, so they don’t need to worry about the light. I’d be a bit worried about the giant buttons that stick out on every edge that seem to be begging to be bumped. Also I question whether those particular buttons and that particular screen layout are wise choices, but that’s for the formal M2M review. A touchscreen might be possible. You might think that would be easy to accidentally activate, but not if it could only be activated by the fingertips in the exosuit’s gloves.


This isn’t an exhaustive list of every wearable control panel from the survey, but a fair enough recounting to point out some things about them as wearable objects.

  • The forearm is a fitting place for controls and information. Wristwatches have taken advantage of this for…some time. 😛
  • Socially, it’s kind of awkward to have an array of buttons on your clothing. Unless it’s an exosuit, in which case knock yourself out.
  • If you’re meant to be sneaking around, lit buttons are counterindicated. As are extruded switch surfaces that can be glancingly activated.
  • The fitness of the inputs and outputs depend on the particular application, but don’t drop the understandability (read: labels) simply for the sake of fashion. (I’m looking at you, Roddenberry.)

(Other) wearable communications

The prior posts discussed the Star Trek combadge and the Minority Report forearm-comm. In the same of completeness, there are other wearable communications in the survey.

There are tons of communication headsets, such as those found in Aliens. These are mostly off-the-shelf varieties and don’t bear a deep investigation. (Though readers interested in the biometric display should check out the Medical Chapter in the book.)

Besides these there are three unusual ones in the survey worth noting. (Here we should give a shout out to Star Wars’ Lobot, who might count except given the short scenes where he appears in Empire it appears he cannot remove these implants, so they’re more cybernetic enhancements than wearable technology.)


In Gattaca, Vincent and his brother Anton use wrist telephony. These are notable for their push-while-talking activation. Though it’s a pain for long conversations, it’s certainly a clear social signal that a microphone is on, it telegraphs the status of the speaker, and would make it somewhat difficult to accidentally activate.


In the Firefly episode “Trash”, the one-shot character Durran summons the police by pressing the side of a ring he wears on his finger. Though this exact mechanism is not given screen time, it has some challenging constraints. It’s a panic button and meant to be hidden-in-plain-sight most of the time. This is how it’s social. How does he avoid accidental activation? There could be some complicated tap or gesture, but I’d design it to require contact from the thumb for some duration, say three seconds. This would prevent accidental activation most of the time, and still not draw attention to itself. Adding an increasingly intense haptic feedback after a second of hold would confirm the process in intended activations and signal him to move his thumbs in unintended activations.


In Back to the Future, one member the gang of bullies that Marty encounters wears a plastic soundboard vest. (That’s him on the left, officer. His character name was Data.) To use the vest, he presses buttons to play prerecorded sounds. He emphasizes Future-Biff’s accusation of “chicken” with a quick cluck. Though this fails the sartorial criteria, being hard plastic, as a fashion choice it does fit the punk character type for being arresting and even uncomfortable, per the Handicap Principle.

There are certainly other wearable communications in the deep waters of sci-fi, so any additional examples are welcome.

Next up we’ll take a look at control panels on wearables.

Precrime forearm-comm


Though most everyone in the audience left Minority Report with the precrime scrubber interface burned into their minds (see Chapter 5 of the book for more on that interface), the film was loaded with lots of other interfaces to consider, not the least of which were the wearable devices.

Precrime forearm devices

These devices are worn when Anderton is in his field uniform while on duty, and are built into the material across the left forearm. On the anterior side just at the wrist is a microphone for communications with dispatch and other officers. By simply raising that side of his forearm near his mouth, Anderton opens the channel for communication. (See the image above.)


There is also a basic circular display in the middle of the posterior left forearm that displays a countdown for the current mission: The time remaining before the crime that was predicted to occur should take place. The text is large white characters against a dark background. Although the translucency provides some visual challenge to the noisy background of the watch (what is that in there, a Joule heating coil?), the jump-cut transitions of the seconds ticking by commands the user’s visual attention.

On the anterior forearm there are two visual output devices: one rectangular perpetrator information (and general display?) and one amber-colored circular one we never see up close. In the beginning of the film Anderton has a man pinned to the ground and scans his eyes with a handheld Eyedentiscan device. Through retinal biometrics, the pre-offender’s identity is confirmed and sent to the rectangular display, where Anderton can confirm that the man is a citizen named Howard Marks.

Wearable analysis

Checking these devices against the criteria established in the combadge writeup, it fares well. This is partially because it builds on a century of product evolution for the wristwatch.

It is sartorial, bearing displays that lay flat against the skin connected to soft parts that hold them in place.

They are social, being in a location other people are used to seeing similar technology.

It is easy to access and use for being along the forearm. Placing different kinds of information at different spots of the body means the officer can count on body memory to access particular data, e.g. Perp info is anterior middle forearm. That saves him the cognitive load of managing modes on the device.

The display size for this rectangle is smallish considering the amount of data being displayed, but being on the forearm means that Anderton can adjust its apparent size by bringing it closer or farther from his face. (Though we see no evidence of this in the film, it would be cool if the amount of information changed based on distance-to-the-observer’s face. Writing that distanceFromFace() algorithm might be tricky though.)

There might be some question about accidental activation, since Anderton could be shooting the breeze with his buddies while scratching his nose and mistakenly send a dirty joke to a dispatcher, but this seems like an unlikely and uncommon enough occurrence to simply not worry about it.

Using voice as the input is cinemagenic, but especially in his line of work a subvocalization input would keep him more quiet—and therefore safer— in the field. Still, voice inputs are fast and intuitive, making for fairly apposite I/O. Ideally he might have some haptic augmentation of the countdown, and audio augmentation of the info so Anderton wouldn’t have to pull his arm and attention away from the perpetrator, but as long as the information is glanceable and Anderton is merely confirming data (rather than new information), recognition is a fast enough cognitive process that this isn’t too much of a problem.

All in all, not bad for a “throwaway” wearable technology.

The combadge & ideal wearables

There’s one wearable technology that, for sheer amount of time on screen and number of uses, eclipses all others, so let’s start with that. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced a technology called a combadge. This communication device is a badge designed with the Starfleet insignia, roughly 10cm wide and tall, that affixes to the left breast of Starfleet uniforms. It grants its wearer a voice communication channel to other personnel as well as the ship’s computer. (And as Memory Alpha details, the device can also do so much more.)

Chapter 10 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction covers the combadge as a communication device. But in this writeup we’ll consider it as a wearable technology.

Enterprise-This-is-Riker Continue reading

Wearable technologies in sci-fi


Recently I was interviewed for The Creators Project about wearable technologies for the Intel Make It Wearable Challenge, both for my (old) role as a designer and managing director at Cooper and in relation to sci-fi interfaces. In that interview I referenced a few technologies from the survey relevant to our conversation. Video is a medium constrained by time, so here on I hope to give the topic a more thorough consideration.

This is a different sort of post than I’ve put to the blog before, more akin to the chapters from the book. This won’t be about a single movie or television show as much as it is a cross-section from many shows.

Image courtesy of Creative Applications Network

Image courtesy of Creative Applications Network

Defining wearable

What counts? Fortunately we don’t have to work too hard on this definition. The name makes it pretty clear that these are technologies worn on the body, either directly or incorporated into clothing. But there’s two edge cases that might count, but I’ll call out as specifically not wearable.


Carryable technologies—like cell phones, most weapons, or even Ruby Rhod’s staff from The Fifth Element—aren’t quite the same thing. When in use, these technologies occupy one or both of the hands of its user. They also have to be holstered or manually put away when not in use. That introduces some different constraints, microinteractions, and ergonomic considerations. In contrast, wearable technologies don’t need to be fetched from storage. They’re just…there, usable at a moment’s notice. So for purposes of the sci-fi interfaces from the survey, I’m only looking at wearable technologies and not these carryable ones.


Perhaps more controversially, exosuits lie outside the definition. Certainly by definition exosuits are worn. Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, the loader that Ripley wears in Aliens, or the APUs used to defend Zion in The Matrix: Revolutions are all worn by their users. But these technologies can’t really be donned or removed casually. Users climb into them and strap in, or as with Iron Man, are mechanically sealed inside. That breaks a connotation of the term “wearable” as its used today, and that is that wearable technology fits into our everyday lives. It’s thin, light, and flexible enough to let us ride the bus, have coffee with a friend, or attend to our jobs with little to no disruption. I can’t really see trying to use Ripley’s loader to grab hold of my espresso cup and ask someone about how their day’s gone, so exosuits are out. (Attentive readers note that exosuits are also called out as excluded from of gestural technologies in Chapter 5 of the book. Fans of these cool interfaces must still wait, but someday these devices will get their due attention.)

Catch me soon if I’m wrong in excluding these two categories of tech from wearables, because the remainder of the writeups are based on this boundary.

Even excluding these two, we’re left with quite a bit to consider, reaching almost back to the beginning of cinema. The first sci-fi film, La Voyage Dans La Lune, had nothing we’d recognize as an interface, so of course that’s off the hook. The second, Metropolis, for all of its prescience, puts technology in the furniture and walls of its Upper City, as monstrous edifices in the Lower City, or as the wicked robot Maria.

But the next thing in the survey is the Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s, and there we see a few technologies that are worn. Since then, we’ve seen devices for communication, mind control, biometrics, fashion, gaming, tracking, plus a few nifty one-offs. Of course the survey is just that, the catalog of interfaces captured and documented so far. Sci-fi is vast and has continued since the book was published. If you see any missing by the time I wrap these up, please let me know.

With this introduction complete, the next several posts we’ll look at several examples in details. But the first one is the big one, and that’s the Star Trek combadge.