Wearable Computers: Fashions for the Future

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 voice activation.

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 Carnegie

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.