Does Sony’s smart wig take wearable computers too far?

A cyber hairpiece could permanently plug us in to a world of distraction and make us look ridiculous at the same time.

Wearable electronics will change everything, we’re told. A coming slew of new technologies from head-mounted computers like Google Glass to colour-changing, smartphone-charging, solar-powered t-shirts are going to integrate electronic systems even more closely into our lives. Our devices won’t be a touch away: they’ll be hands-free, always on, seeing what we see.

The latest idea in this vein to emerge is for a so-called “smart wig”: a device incorporating sensors, a communication interface and an actuator for tactile feedback all hidden within a hairpiece. Sony have just filed a patent application for such a product outlining how they imagine it might work and what it might be used for.

The application makes for some entertaining reading. The smart wig might be used as a navigation tool, particularly for blind people, by detecting surround objects using ultrasound and using vibrations or even small electric shocks to alert users when they need to change direction.

The wig could monitor users’ health or contain a video camera along the lines of Google Glass but also be used as a remote control device operated by facial expressions. The hairpiece itself could even alter its appearance in response to changes in mood.

Sony’s “smart wig” could provide feedback through vibrations or electric shocks through the skull.

This takes a rather farcical turn when the application mentions “dynamic” fake moustaches. Imagine encountering someone in the street making rather strange facial gestures and then watching their hair turn green and their moustache start pointing to the sky. It’s this nonsensical picture that hints at the root of what might be wrong with an admittedly original and imaginative idea.

The advantages Sony describe of a smart wig are that it would be more comfortable than other wearable devices, more likely to be instinctively protected by the user because of its location, and invisible to other people (although there’s also an optimistic suggestion that a visible version could become fashionable).

I remain to be convinced, however, that most people would want to wear a device so integrated into their person that other people would have no idea what they were doing as they twitched their facial muscles or appeared to talk to themselves.

We’ve written before about how Google Glass might find its niche as more of a professional tool than a general device widely adopted by the public. Part of the reason for that suspicion is wearing Google Glass makes people look pretty ridiculous. But at least you know what they’re doing when they tilt their head and shout ‘Ok Glass, take a photo’.

A smart wig might similarly have some great specific applications: the blind person’s location sensor sounds like a good one, and people taking part in medical trials might be much more open to wearing a simple head-mounted sensor than covering themselves in electrodes.

But while not having a pretentious glasses frame plonked on your face could be an attraction to the general public, plugging in an unnecessary hair piece and shouting commands at it doesn’t sound like that much of a better way to active your computer.

Computer companies are striving for ever-greater integration of their devices to the point we barely know they’re there. But do we really want that? Smartphones have had revolutionary effects on our lives both positive and negative. They may distract us from what’s going on around us but at least we have to stop and think about using them separately and can then return to what we were doing.

What remains to be seen is whether true multi-tasking is really possible. Can we safely drive and monitor all the information being flashed before our eyes by our head-mounted screen? Can we hold a conversation if our computer is near-enough wired into our head? Perhaps we can, but sometimes it’s nicer just to leave our phones in our pockets.