Almost every day you’ll find me upholstered in a T-shirt, nondescript jeans and a pair of conspicuously durable soft-soled brown or black leather shoes that my friend Ballinger derogates as ”Starbucks Stompers.“ If you find me outdoors, I‘ll also be wearing a soft black nylon case attached to one of my shoulders via a 1.5-inch-wide equally black and nylon strap. The case contains a laptop computer, its power adapter, its owner’s sunglasses, Ritalin, keys and so on. I‘ve made an appointment to have heavy-duty steel rivets bolted to both distal clavicles, so that I can swap the thing from side to side and provide a precise, symmetrical foundation for chronic lower-back pain.
This is my only wearable computer. The only time I don’t use it is while I‘m wearing it.
Good for you, Dave. That’s fascinating.
The only reason I mention it . . . I couldn‘t help but detect . . . is that a PAN transceiver invisibly embedded in the sole of your left Doc Marten?
Yes, it is a PAN transceiver. What’s it to you?
Sorry. I just wondered . . . I haven‘t used one yet. How does it feel?
How do you mean feel? You mean physically? I can’t feel a thing.
No. I mean every way except physically.
You mean do I feel like it changes me? As a person? Does it violate my sense of personal boundaries?
Okay, yes: Does it violate your sense of personal boundaries?
I doubt it. But I‘m not sure. This is the first time I’m wearing it.
Really? Wow. Have you used it for anything yet?
No. At least not that I know of.
Soon we‘ll be among the PANs, and soon after we’ll be of them. While clunky cyborgian headgear, zany waist- and neck-mounted spaceboy microprocessors and other post-PDA contraptions will certainly occupy space on some of our credit cards in the next few years, the Personal Area Network developed by IBM researcher Thomas Zimmerman under the influence of MIT professors Mike Hawley and Zimmerman‘s former colleague, Neil Gershenfeld, seems likely to have a much more powerful long-term impact without the cumbersome wackiness.
A Personal Area Network uses live Homo sapiens as electrical conduits in a manner entirely unlike the human-energy-harvested-by-machines scenario of The Matrix, yet it’s just as much fun. Zimmerman‘s idea began at MIT, where he worked with Gershenfeld. Gershenfeld had developed a noninvasive way of measuring the bow position for cellist Yo-Yo Ma by using capacitance sensors. Gershenfeld noticed that holding his hand near the sensors unexpectedly diminished the signal. (The body, being dielectric, should boost it.) By presenting the sensors with an ungrounded glove stuffed with ground beef in place of a grounded human, Zimmerman proved that the (grounded) dielectric human was shunting the signal. By inverting the process -- having the signal emanate from the body -- and then modulating the signal, Zimmerman and Gershenfeld found that the grounded body could conduct and transmit digital information at up to around 1 megabit per second.
A battery-powered PAN encodertransmitter mounted close to the body -- the heel of a shoe works -- electrostatically generates picoamp (10-12 amp) currents into the body. Though not nearly strong enough for us to feel or develop cancer from (we hope), this signal can be received not only by direct contact with the body but through the body’s adjacent air, wood, glass, clothing and so on -- pretty much any nonconductive what-have-you. Transceivers can easily be integrated with existing PCs, PDAs, cell phones, pagers and LANs, so that, for example, you can log on to your desktop by just walking up to it, and then log off when you walk away. A handshake could transmit the answers to your next exam. Public phones equipped with PAN sensors could automatically identify users -- no more calling cards and PINs. DVD rentals? Select your disk and leave -- the PAN sensor around the door will debit your account. Emergency rooms: No more forms to fill out; your medical history, insurance info, allergies and so on will be transferred into the hospital‘s database automatically.
Which brings us back to personal boundaries.
Let me ask you this: Suppose you wear your PAN with minimal encryption and then you meet someone you really like a whole lot and everything’s going great for two or three dates and then you find out that this person‘s also been wearing a PAN transceiver, but he didn’t tell you.
Is that the case here?
No. But if it were, should etiquette demand that he tell you?
If you‘re planning on hacking in and stealing my diary and posting naked pictures of me on the Net, then yes. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem relevant.