By Diana J. Choyce
Nov 06 - 12, 1999
First there were lumbering desktop computers, then came the heavy
laptops, now you can choose to wear your computer as a fashion statement. Pop on your
eyeglass video screen, strap your computer to your waist, and you're good to go anywhere
in the world. Add wireless internet access and you don't even need a place to plug in.
Science fiction writers must be very content.
IBM Japan has just announced it is testing a walkman-like wearable
computer they hope to market by next year. It was co-developed with Olympus who devised
the face mounted display. The computer is fully functional, using the Windows 95/98 OS
system, unlike the handheld models that are now sold. It boasts a Pentium MMX processor, a
keyboard connector, 64 MB of RAM, universal serial bus, and a graphics chip. IBM will be
using its matchbook size 340MB micro-drive and a tiny screen that sits in front of the
eye. It is similar to viewing a 10 inch screen from about a foot away. The screen can
support 1.4 million colors at a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. Also the battery pack
life is estimated at two to three hours. IBM is also expected to produce a model that uses
Wearable computers were actually introduced in the 1960's by Ivan E.
Sutherland who developed a wearable headset. Since then research has continued, but only
recently has it gone on the fast track. New technologies in micro-chips, drives, and
optical displays have opened the doors to a free for all in portable computer fashions. At
the forefront of this research are MIT ( Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and
Mellon University. MIT is working on a computer with "augmented
memory" which could sense who is in a room with you, and give you stats on those
people. Or if you're talking about a certain subject, it would look up facts to support
your position in the conversation. They are also working on a prototype mini keyboard. The
keyboard has only 12 keys, which are punched in patterns to create specific commands.
Carnegie Mellon is concentrating on special purpose gear to be used in the workplace.
Their focus is in making blue collar work more efficient and has carried out more than 20
such prototype projects.
There are also many companies working on specific components that make
up these wearable computers. At MicroOptics Corp. a pair of specially-designed eyeglasses
can be used as a display screen. The glasses, which are infused with liquid crystal, give
the illusion of a free-floating, full-size monochrome screen, without impairing the user's
vision. And they are already making prototypes of prescription glasses, as well as glasses
that offer color images. Xybernaut's 133P wearable computer model, use voice-activated
commands. While such a system keeps both hands free, voice-recognition software is
somewhat memory-intensive. The Boeing Company has developed stackable chip technology for
the US Defense Department. Four such stacks will be placed in a processing unit the size
of a deck of playing cards. The stacks can run four different operating systems, or can be
combined under one system. It will include hookups for microphones and speakers, as well
as some form of communications device like a modem.
The most interesting use to date of these wearable devices is combining
them with fashion. After all, one would rather not look like the computer one is carrying.
In October, MIT held a computer fashion show with some of the world's best-known designers
on hand. Nike, Levi Strauss, and Swatch who are all sponsors of the MIT research were
involved.The clothes on display, from a music synthesizer woven into a dress to a tunic
that translates the wearer's words into a foreign language, were shown as new concepts.
Some of the designs use special conductive thread woven into the clothing to carry
low-voltage signals from one part of the system to another. One student has developed a
fabric keyboard to be sewn onto blue jean jackets donated by Levi Strauss and connected to
small computers powered by 9-volt batteries tucked into interior pockets.The clothes were
not cheap being in the $2,500 to $4,000 range. The MIT students, as well as other research
groups, are hopeful that this new technology will be available to the mainstream of
consumers in the next five years.
It appears that in the near future your clothing may replace every
portable electronic device you own. Your shirt will have a keyboard to access the latest
stock news and weather. Your night clothing will regulate the heater in your house. Your
shoes may even access a GPS and automatically walk you where you want to go. Well, it sure
sounds a lot better than a 10 pound laptop, but buying batteries will probably make you
broke. And being wired could be a nasty thing in an electrical storm.