Archive for Sunday, June 7, 1998


June 7, 1998


Orange County Register

Someday soon your clothes could make you smarter, not just look smart.

They might whisper the forgotten name of an acquaintance in your ear, tell you which way to turn your car to reach the closest vacant space in a parking garage, and even save your life by preventing fellow soldiers from directing fire your way.

This is the promise of a new type of technology just emerging from research labs from Boston to the San Francisco Bay area. It's called the wearable computer -- a collection of cheap, smart chips woven into the very fabric of your clothes.

And it could prove more valuable than any Armani or Donna Karan suit in your wardrobe.

The next step

Technologists say the wearable is the next step in the evolution of the computer, which, in the space of two decades, has gone from room-sized behemoths that spat out payroll checks to desktop PCs that keep track of every facet of our professional lives.

``Wearable computing is a way in which you can have computers with you for more parts of your life,'' said Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center.

The folks at PARC know a thing or two about revolutionizing the way we live. After all, they played pivotal roles in inventing the personal computer, and in making it easier to use by letting us click on little pictures on the screen to do our work.

Now PARC and other researchers are experimenting with ways to let us take our computers along, without having to lug heavy equipment. There are eyeglasses that would serve as a computer monitor, projecting three-dimensional images before your eyes; a watch that might double as a communicator; and shoes that could capture the body's energy and power your entire perma-pressed PC. No batteries need to be included.

Military roots

The movement toward ready-to-wear computing started with the military. Boeing Corp. worked with the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a vest for soldiers.

The vest, called the Data Rover, tells those on the battlefield where they are in relation to one another -- and to the enemy.

It's voice-activated, so the soldier doesn't need to worry about tapping commands on a keyboard while shouldering an M-16 rifle. The 10-pound waterproof vest projects images of battlefield maps and other information on a helmet-mounted display. The small screen, which rests about two inches from the eyes, looks like one of those magnifying glasses jewelers wear.

Such a technology could revolutionize the way troops are deployed in the battlefield, or help avert those tragic episodes of ``friendly fire,'' in which soldiers mistakenly shoot their comrades.

Commercial applications

Already, this concept is finding commercial applications on Boeing's own factory floor, in poultry plants and on automobile assembly lines. One Minnesota-based company, ViA Inc., developed a less bulky version that straps around the waist like a belt.

ViA won't talk about the ways in which Ford Motor Co. is using strap-around PCs to refine its assembly line.

But Boeing isn't bashful about its hopes. Rodney Loyd, the Data Rover's principal engineer, said the aircraft maker hopes the technology will replace the giant 8-by-4-foot plywood pegboards workers now use to measure wires for its 747s and other aircraft.

Boeing is forced to stockpile thousands of the boards, to reflect each airline's customizations. Loyd said the wearable computer can project a virtual pegboard that would allow workers to accurately measure cable assemblies.

Revolutionizing the mundane

Much of the development work on wearable devices is aimed at taking familiar items we already use, such as wristwatches or eyeglasses, and adding new features.

The Defense Department has hired ViA to develop a wristwatch as communications tool.

This new style of timepiece will likely sport a microphone, a speaker and a full-color display.

You could ask your wristwatch to calculate your expense reports or read your e-mail, and it would reply.

ViA Chief Executive David Caroll thinks the wristwatch might be equipped with an earpiece that you could hold to your ear, allowing you to make wireless phone calls. So, you'd no longer need a cell phone.

LCD eyeglass monitors

The MicroOptical Corp. in Boston has developed a prototype pair of eyeglasses with built-in liquid crystal displays. The look is straight out of Buddy Holly's wardrobe: Thick black frames enclose the electrical components, which project light diagonally across the lens in front of the eye.

``You see the computer image out in space in front of the glasses,'' said Mark Spitzer, MicroOptical's president.

The 320 by 240 resolution is about what you'd get from your television. And when you turn them off, the glasses assume their normal role as corrective lenses or shades.

Spitzer said there's intense interest, not just from the military but also from physicians and emergency medical technicians, who want to consult a patient's medical history while keeping their hands free to administer treatment.

The obstacle

One big obstacle to wear-it-anywhere computing is the thing that keeps even road warriors tied to a chair: the keyboard.

Researchers disagree on the best approach for scrapping the keyboard. Or even whether it should be ditched. Some think speech recognition is the answer.

Microsoft Corp. is developing systems that would give computers the ability to recognize and understand human conversation. Speaking at a recent technology conference, Chairman Bill Gates predicted that a decade from now personal computers would be able not only to recognize speech, but to understand it as humans do when they are conversing with each other.

But as Weiser pointed out -- voice is fairly public. What if you rely on your wearable computer to serve as a memory aid, and help out when you've forgotten the name of an acquaintance?

Asking ``Who's this?'' out loud could be mighty embarrassing.

In searching for a new way to interact, Carnegie Mellon University's Wearable Computer Systems researchers opted for something familiar -- the pen. Its Digital Ink prototype is a sophisticated pen that recognizes and stores your handwriting, and understands written instructions.

You could write a memo on a piece of paper, jot the word ``send'' and a phone number, and the pen would instruct your wearable computer to fax a copy of the document to your boss.

Harnessing power

Even with all these advances, and perhaps because of them, the one constant in portable computing is the need for power. Lots of it.

So far, advances in batteries have failed to keep pace. Even with great power management, the best portable batteries hold about four hours of computing life.

Researchers at MIT are trying a fresh approach: harnessing the energy we expend when we walk or perform any other movement.

Alex Pentland, head of academic computing at MIT's Media Lab, said its researchers are experimenting with placing a tiny generator in the heel of a shoe to capture and power wearable devices, something like a self-winding wristwatch. Someday it might replace the battery that imposes limits on portable computing.

How will this all come together?

Science-fiction author Gregory Benford thinks the wearable computer is the key to unlocking an increasingly animated world around us.

He envisions a world in which the mall will greet you by name, and alert you to a sale on those Carol Jean shoes you tried on last week. Your car would effortlessly bypass traffic jams, and automatically seek out vacant parking spaces.

``A completely lively world means in a sense you're never alone,'' says the author of ``Timescape.'' ``This is cradle-to-grave caring. Literally people will spend little time that's not within the sound of a responsive voice,'' said Benford. ``You'd be able to speak to your room and say `What's on TV tonight?' ''

Living it

Benford hasn't just imagined it. He's lived his future vision. At least, one small part. The University of California, Irvine, physicist donned a wearable computer while studying at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

He wore a computer slung over his shoulder in a backpack, a monocle-like display over his left eye and a miniature keyboard strapped to his right bicep. As he walked among MIT's massive Grecian-inspired pillars, not far from the Charles River, he checked his e-mail and browsed an online library while others in Kendall Square stopped and gawked.

He also experienced a sensation unique to today's pioneers of wearable computers.

``I got the usual, `Who's that geek?' looks,'' Benford said.

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