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What Would You Do with a Wearable Computer?


By Mark Long

There's the Adidas smart shoe, which uses a microprocessor to adjust the cushioning around your foot automatically. There are wearable heart-rate monitors that keep you looking cool doing cardio exercises. There's even a wrist-worn, Windows-based computer that has a video display designed to fit over one eye, turning you into a reasonable facsimile of the Borg from Star Trek.

Clearly, the dawn of wearable computers is here.

Even as the chips that power these devices are getting smaller, they are getting smarter. Futurists say that the day when we will all be wearing full-fledged computers attached in one way or another to our bodies is right around the corner.

But for those of us already burdened with mobile handsets, PDAs, pagers, and laptops, a computer you slip into every morning might seem less like a must-have and more like a hassle.

Fortunately, a convergence of technologies is underway between engineers of wearable computers and manufacturers of mobile devices. It's a union that promises to revolutionize consumer lifestyles in several new and interesting ways.

Blurring the Line

"Although we've been talking about wearable computing for a decade, it is only now that the general public gets what that is," said Michael Sung, senior researcher in the Wearable Computing Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . "But there's still a long way to go before the technology is embedded right into our garments."

Sung explained that, at this point, we could start taking steps in the right direction by putting advanced technology in the electronics devices that people are actually willing to carry for extended periods, such as cell phones or wrist watches.

Bruce Lambert, vice president of MicroOptical, a company that specializes in head-mounted computer displays, offered a similar take on the wearables trajectory. "The whole wearable-computing space is folding into the mobile-computing environment these days, and it is becoming tough to draw any lines of distinction between the two," he said.

This ongoing convergence makes sense, especially given the fact that the operating system, memory, processing power, and all the other assets that fulfill the needs of the wearable computing industry are now available on small compact devices, said Peter Phillips, vice president of Socket Communications, a company that makes add-ons for smartphones, PDAs, and other mobile devices.

Making Health All the Fashion

But before wearable technology makes you look better, it just might make you feel better. MIT's Sung recently conducted a study at MIT to demonstrate that today's smartphones -- when used in tandem with heart-rate and body-motion sensors -- not only can monitor health status but also can provide immediate feedback before a health problem becomes critical. The end result, Sung believes, will be nothing less than a sea change in health care.

With the health-care system bracing for the large numbers of baby boomers who will soon reach senior status, the old medical model is no longer going to work, Sung said. Instead, he sees a world of mobile devices that help their owners detect and deal with health problems before they become chronic or necessitate a visit to the doctor.

For example, people equipped with some sort of wearable computer, whether as a stand-alone device or a smartphone accessory, will be able to monitor themselves for signs of heart trouble and then take the appropriate steps to prevent a heart attack, he said.

"Most problems are the result of unhealthy behaviors, and if we are going to change behavior at the end point, we need to provide persuasive feedback to the individual," Sung said. "We are going to be building devices that are truly context-aware and able to do long-term behavior-monitoring of individuals, what each person's activity patterns are, and how much exercise they are actually getting each week."

Enabling Video on the Go

Early efforts to introduce wearable computers failed because of what used to be perceived as the inherent "dork factor," according to Stephen Glaser, vice president of Icuiti, a company that makes eyewear-mounted computer displays.

"When you used to see a person talking to himself while walking down the street, you'd have thought he was crazy. But with Bluetooth headsets and other wireless technologies so prevalent today, we now see this type of activity as normal," said Glaser.

Coming soon are head-mounted displays for consumers that weigh less than 3 ounces and are closer to a pair of sunglasses than earlier systems, Glaser said. "You can put on a pair of sunglasses and be watching a movie on a virtual 42-inch screen."

The new devices will be able to work on anything from laptops, PDAs, and portable DVD players to digital cameras and even cell phones, he said.

"We see the biggest market growth coming from people having video streamed to a cell phone," Glaser noted. "I also think the fact that Apple sold two million movies online to video iPod users in the last six weeks tells us that video on the go is going to be a big deal," he said.

Real Life Power-Ups

The marriage of head-mounted displays with yet another new computer technology -- called augmented reality -- could open the eyes of the world within the next couple of years, said Bruce Thomas, director of the Wearable Computer Lab at the University of Southern Australia.

"With augmented reality, the idea is that it is similar to virtual reality in that you wear a head-mounted display, and when you move your head, it moves the scene accordingly," Thomas said. "But with augmented reality, you see the physical world combined with graphical information."

Football fans already benefit from the concept. Augmented reality appears on the TV screen in the form of the computer-generated first-down line that is now part and parcel of every live football broadcast.

In the not-too-distant future, wearable computing systems will be able to process live images digitally and "augment" them through the addition of computer-generated graphics and other information.

Socket's Phillips likewise sees a bright future for the technology in the gaming arena through the introduction of wireless platforms using some kind of head-mounted display. "When the players are networked together, they'll be able to play a virtual game with others no matter where they might be," he said.

Boosting Social Intelligence

The MIT Media Lab has been studying social interactions involving large numbers of people equipped with wearable technology. "[It is] about having a device close to you that basically works on your behalf," said MIT researcher Jonathan Gips. "It helps you to collect information in social settings before communicating with someone else, and it works on your behalf in a very private way."

Gips calls such information "social intelligence." For example, people wearing special badges might be able to tell if they are doing well with the person they are talking to or going down in flames, Gips said. "And if your stress levels are going up, it can give you some immediate feedback to make you aware of this fact."

The technology might prove to be particularly useful to people attending large public events, helping them connect with others who have common interests. "When going to shows and looking for something in a giant sea of people, the technology can increase the likelihood of connecting," Gips said.

"If you and I have already talked with persons A, B, and C but haven't yet talked to each other, the device I am wearing will be able to proactively instigate a conversation between us by flashing a special icon that would prompt me to stop and say 'Hey, how are you doing?'"

Thomas, of the University of Southern Australia, sees these kind of electronic devices being integrated into clothing within the next five to 10 years. Making the technology as low-profile and unobtrusive as possible is key to its adoption, Thomas said.

"As one example, we are working on a set of pager motors integrated into a shoulder pad for a business suit," Thomas said. One idea is to have silent vibration patterns -- similar to custom ring tones -- coded to incoming phone numbers. "This way, when you are in a meeting you have a better idea of who is trying to contact you and you are not always pulling your phone out to see who is calling," Thomas said.

If he and the other wearable-computer innovators are right, reaching out and touching someone might soon take on a whole new, potentially augmented meaning.
Thanks to cul8r33.

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