What's New in Technology for July 2002

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I’d Like a Dell in a 42 Regular...
“Future” is a common word. Some people are afraid of it. Some people are busy making it. Others don’t care. Some feel, like many good science fiction writers, that if we stop for a moment and think about what the logical extensions of our technology are, we might avoid disasters by being more aware of the consequences of our inventions. Whichever camp you’re in, this month we’d like to present something that may, at first, seem made up. I assure you it’s not: Wearable computing.

What is wearable computing? According to Steve Mann in his 1998 keynote address at the 1998 International Conference on Wearable Computing (that was four years ago!): “Wearable computing facilitates a new form of human-computer interaction comprising a small body-worn computer (e.g. user--programmable device) that is always on and always ready and accessible. In this regard, the new computational framework differs from that of hand held devices, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The “always ready” capability leads to a new form of synergy between human and computer, characterized by long-term adaptation through constancy of user-interface.

This is an area of strong interest by such bodies as Stanford University, MIT, and development labs in England and Switzerland. Private enterprise has gotten in on this new gold rush so now you can buy sunglasses, jackets, shoes, vests, belts, hats that are wired. We have not heard yet from Calvin Klein or Victoria’s Secret, but certainly they are not too far behind.

Take, for example, something simple like sunglasses. What could we do there? One enterprising fellow now has his third generation sunglasses that display computing images in the inside of the glasses. The experience is much that of “Terminator.” Perhaps this unit is better adapted to someone who is ADD and likes to focus on several things in rapid succession or the Type A+ executive on the run multitasking into another dimension.

The MIThril lab has produced a sporty looking vest that’s a handy walk-around computer which can perform a variety of tasks which runs on (sorry, Bill) on a Linux operating system. Proposed applications (“applications” translates to “usefulness”) are sparse. Perhaps it would allow someone a convenient alternative to her or his laptop or PDA. Perhaps when two wearable computing people meet, their databanks could merge and they could exchange large quantities of data, like what they had for breakfast. And the MIThril lab admits none of this may find practical application. Hey, exploration does not guarantee discovery.

In Bristol, England, the Computer Science Department of the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratories, Europe have developed “The Original Bristol Cyberjacket” with multiple applications. One such app is sort of a GPS for tipplers: the PubCrawl application. With this handy little app installed on their CyberJacket, someone can just push a button and find out precisely where the closest pub is and how to get there, like “It’s right behind you” (these programmers are not without a sense of humor).

We should not forget the legacy Dick Tracy left us (which was introduced on Jan. 13, 1946!). Many of the leading watch manufacturers are actively engaged in creating the two-way radio and video phone that Dick Tracy introduced us to. Soon it will be as easy to phone home as it will be to sneeze.

Aside from clothing, jewelry, and eyewear, there is one company that makes the “LifeShirt.” ViviMetrics makes a comfortable, washable shirt that monitors over 30 vital signs. We would hope that no one would ever be that sick that they would need one, but if so, ViviMetrics is ready.

For a brief look at the darker side (no pun intended), Microvision, a Seattle-based company, has developed a method of transmitting electronic images directly onto the human retina. Good bye cathode-ray tubes and liquid crystal displays. With headgear that imitates science fiction (most notably Star Trek), information is beamed from a tiny projector onto the retina of the humanoid for military, medical, and transportation applications. The quality of the image is many times that possible with conventional computer displays. While this device is in the category of wearable computing, it will be a while before fashion standards will apply.

At the beginning of this article, in his definition of wearable clothing, Steve Mann implies that wearable computing will centralize the fragmented computing we have now with our PDAs and cell phones, laptops, etc., and create a “a new form of synergy between human and computer.” This is a scientific euphemism for intimacy and being the case, which party is it that wants to get closer? The computer? It seems that the least considered area of impact in technological innovation is the effect it might have on human-to-human interaction. At the University of Oregon’s Wearable Computing Laboratory, wearable computing is being studied for its impact on human communities and how wearable computing might enhance human interaction. In short, they are studying how the computer might serve the human.

No matter which of the camps you might fall into regarding the future and technology, one thing is for sure: It is coming. How it will change how we relate to each other is another story. Will it be more like the movie “The Matrix” or will it be more like “Star Trek”? Time will tell. Synchronize you underwear.


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