Wearable computing

If you’re too embarrassed

Wearable computing

to be seen with an over-sized PDA strapped to your wrist, then you probably won’t care much for the Tummy PC, designed by John Smart at the US-based Acceleration Studies Foundation. This literally is a wearable PC – an 11.1in ultraportable Sony VAIO strapped into a custom-built nylon case that’s worn like a bum bag (see the picture overleaf). Smart’s even made a wearable mouse by drilling two holes in a standard device and attaching it to a name-badge holder that dangles from his trouser belt loop. He claims the Heath Robinson-esque machine “works amazingly well”, but candidly admits: “I do get funny comments occasionally about my ‘Texas-style belt buckle’, but I’m sure those will disappear in another five to ten years, as an increasing number of folks start wearing the smaller and even more powerful Tummy PCs of the future.” You read it here first.

Analysts, however, believe the concept of strapping a full-blown computer to your body is yesterday’s technology, not tomorrow’s. “The wearable computer concept of the 1990s was a full-function PC – the old IBM concept where somebody would be wearing an eye piece [with a heads-up display]. It was a geek device – kind of cool, but impractical,” says Wilcox. Indeed, when we checked IBM’s wearable computer research website, it seems it hasn’t updated its concept design since 1998. Similarly, a spokesperson for HP’s Labs in Bristol confirmed that his company had shifted its emphasis away from wearables to location-sensitive devices.

Wilcox claims IBM and HP were beaten to the punch by the likes of Nokia and Motorola. “Everyone already has a wearable computer – your cellphone. My Sony Ericsson has more processing power and graphics capabilities than the first PC I bought in 1994. There isn’t much difference between a Bluetooth earpiece and the visors on those old IBM prototypes,” he says.

Future on display

Not only have smartphones stolen the wearable PC’s thunder – they’re set to become the lynchpin for all future devices. Motorola envisages the phone becoming a Wearable Digital Assistant (WDA) that acts as a hub for an array of other Bluetooth devices that you carry around. These include the IntelliPen, which automatically digitises handwritten notes and beams them back wirelessly to the WDA, so that you can keep electronic copies of meeting notes without requiring a tablet PC.

The WDA will also make phone calls through Bluetooth “radio buttons” that attach to your clothing like tiny pin badges. In fact, earlier this year, Motorola unveiled the tiny H5 Miniblue headset, which fits neatly into the ear and uses a built-in microphone to pick up the sound of your voice reverberating through the ear canal. However, analysts predict that Bluetooth technology will become even more intimate in the coming years. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could have a piercing as a Bluetooth headset?” muses Wilcox. “It would extend functionality and maintain fashion,” he says, not to mention giving parents sleepless nights wondering if their child is going to come home with a mobile phone in their nose.

Wearable technology could also be used to address one of the mobile phone’s biggest shortcomings. “One of the weaknesses of the cellphone is that you have to read from a tiny screen,” says Robin Mannings, futurologist at BT Labs. “We’ll see display technology being included in clothing. Electric ink is going to change displays dynamically – tiny capsules can be fabricated onto the surface of objects. What we can do with displays currently is very limited, but we’re expecting that to change a lot.”

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