Sony may be looking to take the relatively new field of wearable electronics in a slightly unexpected direction if a patent filed by the company is any indication. The patent isn't for a competing version of Google Glasses, nor on a watch so smart that it could join Mensa, but on the SmartWig. Scratching your head yet? Before you pull the rug out from under this concept, some of the possible applications are more useful than one might expect from a hi-tech hairpiece.
Wearable electronics is a concept looking for killer applications. Currently, the largest sector for wearable electronics is in fitness and medical devices, often taking the form of bracelets or armbands. Smartwatches and computational glasses (e.g., Google Glass) currently appear to be in second place, although they have not yet found their true purpose in the scheme of things either.
No one, however, appears to have speculated about the vast potential and tremendous vistas that would be unlocked by hair with intelligence. The developers of Sony's SmartWig, Hiroaki Tobita and Takuya Kuzi, shared their thoughts on this issue in an essay last year:
“There is a wide variety of wearable computing devices, such as computational glasses, clothes, shoes, and so on... However, most wearable devices have become neither common nor popular... We think one of the biggest reasons is the style... the focus has been [on] function, not style... The goal of SmartWig is to achieve both natural and practical wearable devices.”
Function, however, is an important part of wearable electronics. Digging into US Patent Application Publication US20130311132, the key components of a SmartWig appear to be a sensor, a CPU, a communications interface to a second computer, and (of course) a wig that hides all this.
Although the patent covers a number of serious potential applications, such as a SmartWig to help a blind user navigate their surroundings, a health monitor, or an EEG interface for neurofeedback applications, most of the applications contemplated appear to be on the fringe, likely only to serve niche markets.
Other applications approach the ridiculous, such as the Presentation Wig. This coiffure will allow its user to control a laser pointer by wiggling one's eyebrows (that's right, it comes with frickin' laser beams attached to the head), and to step through a PowerPoint slideshow by tugging at the right sideburn.
The patent application makes a number of questionable points urging the naturalness of hiding computer equipment away under a rug. One of these is that a wig containing computer equipment is associated with "significantly increased user comfort and an improved handling of the wearable computing device."
On this point, I have trod the boards on many a night over the years, which has required wearing the occasional wig on stage. I can assure all readers that wigs are miserable hot things to wear, particularly if you still have your own hair!
The final case the patent application makes for a SmartWig being a good idea is that a wig will conceal your computing and sensing equipment (yes, and the lasers) so that one's companions will remain unaware that you are either follicularly challenged or have become a cyborg.
There is a more serious point to this notion of concealment, however. A wig can attempt to conceal that you are using wearable electronics, although wigs are usually pretty easy to spot. However, what they may conceal effectively is how much equipment you are packing.
For example, if you want an accelerometer, multi-axis gyroscope, electronic compass, and some feedback vibrators (say, to help an elderly person keep their balance), these are so small they could easily be concealed in a well-fitted toupee:
On the other hand, if you are an International Man of Mystery, and need to carry about a full sensor and diagnostic system, complete with time-of-flight analysis that allows you to see around corners and through walls, you will be carrying a lot of equipment. Solution? Wear a bigger wig!
I've been poking a bit of fun at Sony for the SmartWig concept, but at least it is thinking outside the box. Lest you think the company is completely wigging out, however, Sony representatives have stated they have no plans for commercialization at present.
Perhaps this is wise, considering the rather high cost of good wigs. It wouldn't do for Sony to create a piece of wearable electronics that is so expensive that few indeed would be able to pay (or "toupee") the list price. In that case, they would have to shave the price a bit to provide their customers with bang(s) for their bucks.