There have been visions of smart, communicating objects even before the global computer network was launched forty-five years ago. As the Internet has grown to link all signs of intelligence (i.e., software) around the world, a number of other terms associated with the idea and practice of connecting everything to everything have made their appearance, including machine-to-machine (M2M), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), context-aware computing, wearables, ubiquitous computing, and the Web of Things. Here are a few milestones in the evolution of the mashing of the physical with the digital.
1932 Jay B. Nash writes in Spectatoritis: “Within our grasp is the leisure of the Greek citizen, made possible by our mechanical slaves, which far outnumber his twelve to fifteen per free man… As we step into a room, at the touch of a button a dozen light our way. Another slave sits twenty-four hours a day at our thermostat, regulating the heat of our home. Another sits night and day at our automatic refrigerator. They start our car; run our motors; shine our shoes; and cult our hair. They practically eliminate time and space by their very fleetness.”
January 13, 1946 The 2-Way Wrist Radio, worn as a wristwatch byDick Tracy and members of the police force, makes its first appearance and becomes one of the comic strip’s most recognizable icons.
1949 The bar code is conceived when 27 year-old Norman Joseph Woodland draws four lines in the sand on a Miami beach. Woodland, who later became an IBM engineer, received (with Bernard Silver) the first patent for a linear bar code in 1952. More than twenty years later, another IBMer, George Laurer, was one of those primarily responsible for refining the idea for use by supermarkets.
1955 Edward O. Thorp conceives of the first wearable computer, a cigarette pack-sized analog device, used for the sole purpose of predicting roulette wheels. Developed further with the help of Claude Shannon, it was tested in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961, but its existence was revealed only in 1966.
October 4, 1960 Morton Heilig receives a patent for the first-ever head-mounted display.
1967 Hubert Upton invents an analog wearable computer with eyeglass-mounted display to aid in lip reading.
October 29, 1969 The first message is sent over the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet.
June 26, 1974 A Universal Product Code (UPC) label is used to ring up purchases at a supermarket for the first time.
1977 CC Collins develops an aid to the blind, a five-pound wearable with a head-mounted camera that converted images into a tactile grid on a vest.
Early 1980s Members of the Carnegie-Mellon Computer Science department install micro-switches in the Coke vending machine and connect them to the PDP-10 departmental computer so they could see on their computer terminals how many bottles were present in the machine and whether they were cold or not.
1981 While still in high school, Steve Mann develops a backpack-mounted “wearable personal computer-imaging system and lighting kit.”
September 1991 Xerox PARC’s Mark Weiser publishes “The Computer in the 21st Century” in Scientific American, using the terms “ubiquitous computing” and “embodied virtuality” to describe his vision of how “specialized elements of hardware and software, connected by wires, radio waves and infrared, will be so ubiquitous that no one will notice their presence.”
1993 MIT’s Thad Starner starts using a specially-rigged computer and heads-up display as a wearable.