SmartWig: Sony wants to sweep wearable electronics under the rug


December 1, 2013

Sony's SmartWig in its guise as an aid to navigation (Image: USPTO Patent Application Publication US20130311132)

Sony's SmartWig in its guise as an aid to navigation (Image: USPTO Patent Application Publication US20130311132)

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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.

Source: USPTO

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

they had this exact thing portrayed in the movie 'cloud atlas' .

in the futuristic portrayals, people in the future have very small electronic devices implanted under the skin (they look like minor skin bumps, something akin to the ritual scarring bumps one may see in some african tribes) ----the skin bump has coming out of it a minor wire which travelled for some length under the skin (creating a raised/bump outline) until it emerged from out of the skin conecting to a set of wires looking like a hair weave/net laid over the natural hair of the person.

i think some of the characters that were male, just had the skin bump with a little wire coming out without the hair net.

it looked pretty cool actually, and in fact, a lot cooler than google glass.

i think the major hurdles for subcutaneous communications devices are 1) cancer caused by existing frequency exposures. 2) infection of open 'wounds'.

these problems are being worked on. better cellular phone technology using less and different types radiation can be developed. it already is.

and infection of open wounds is constantly being studied for use of IV intravenous needle fluid drip devices . eventually a technology will be developed to cleanly and regularly port through the human skin without typical infection problems. it is not a trivial challenge.

so, don't knock the smart wig.


@zevulon: I seem to recall research being done into a material modelled after animals with horns, antlers and such where the body connective tissue would be able to grow into pores in the device securely enough to form a seal but which does not provoke an immune response. Though other technologies may make wire contacts at the skin surface unnecessary.

As for the wig, it may have some niche applications but I don't think it is an ideal interface for the reason mentioned of being hot and uncomfortable.

Snake Oil Baron

Is it similar to Telephaty One?

Assar Sild

OK, first off, did Sony simple ask for a patent just so others couldn't develop a wig device?

Would it make for a great antenna? or WIFI repeater? Can you imagine 50 million wifi repeaters, we wouldn't need cellular anymore.

What if instead of a wig it was simply a under liner for a wig....or hat? Then you could use it more situations.

Wigs are hot, but what if you could use that heat to power the devices? It would then be turned into a cooler, nice for outside and cutting down the need for airconditioning.

A big hair wig, like a afro, that could contain both electronics and act as a bike helmet if made from proper materials.

In movies, the hair ends could be cameras, mics and sensors allowing a 360 degree field recording area. Could be a spy movie, or some remote minion could be giving warnings of impending danger creeping up behind.

Actually a 360 degree helmet/wig camera system would just be cool to have in real life. You would need a program to translate the data, but you could use that to create cool maps for games based on real world data. Google wouldn't need cars to record for google maps/earth, they could use bicyclists.

Digital wigs that change color with your mood, how handy would that be if your boss or spouse had one?

Comon! Use your imagination, turn the wigs into digital billboards in exchange for cheaper cellular rates (cell electronics would have to be in wig).

Possibilities are endless.


Chuckle, talk about thinking inside the box. Jeez people, just put the equipment in a hat instead of a wig. Hats are coming back into style more and more, you could integrate the electronics between the layers of felt or have a separate liner you put in different hats . You might even be able to use body heat to power the device ,after all the head generates the most heat . Frankly I can think of dozens more things you could do with them and it wouldn't be as dangerous as the zombie people shuffling around staring at their smart phones.

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