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  The Wearable Computer Gamble   

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Development of a card-counting computer
and of a roulette-predicting machine.

   Photo Joyce Stonehocker
  Roulette Prediction: Data - Pictures
  BlackJack: KIN to KIM  --  Development

The earliest developers of wearable computers had less useful goals in mind. The first was built by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student Ed Thorp and his professor, Claude Shannon, of information theory fame. Meant to predict roulette wheel numbers, it took shape in Shannon's basement workshop at his home in Mystic Lakes, Mass.

The unit, an analog computer the size of a cigarette pack, was linked to micro switches in the wearer's shoes. Input was big toe pressure at the moment when a wheel's spun ball passed a reference mark and when it passed it again, allowing its speed to be calculated. The output was in the form of tones heard through the bettor's hearing aid, with each of eight tones assigned to a possible bet.

Conceived by Thorp in 1955, the apparatus was built over the 1960-1961 academic year and tested by a nonchalant Thorp, a nervous Shannon, and their wives in a Las Vegas casino in June 1961. According to the abstract of Thorp's paper, "The Invention of the First Wearable Computer," delivered at the Second International Symposium on Wearable Computers in 1998 in Pittsburgh, the "predictions were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44 percent [this being in the increase over standard odds in predicting on which number the ball would land] but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting."

Thorp first went public with his story in 1966. By 1985, Nevada would ban "use or possession of any device to predict outcomes, analyze possibilities of occurrence, analyze strategy for playing or betting, and keeping track of cards played." Thorp observes: "The descendants of the first wearable computer were formidable enough to be outlawed."

In the interim, the first digital wearable computer was also made to beat the house at roulette. In 1978, Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard, and others--under the collective name Eudaemonic Enterprises--created a computer that fit in a shoe. It had toe-operated buttons for input (the left toe switched through eight data-gathering modes, while the right increased or decreased pre-programmed game parameters). Radio frequency output transmissions were felt by the bettor as tapping against the body through solenoids.

For wearable applications other than gambling, MIT and other universities like Carnegie Mellon and Stanford have had R&D efforts for years. At Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon, for instance, the computer science department has been pioneering wearable PCs based on Intel processors. The first was the 1991 VuMan for browsing blueprint data, running at a modest 8 MHz. Since then, Carnegie Mellon has developed over 20 generations of wearables. --S.D.

This article first appeared here: IEEE Spectrum October 2000 Volume 37 Number 10 [defunct]

"Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future"   ~  Niels Bohr

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