Wearable computers

Toby Howard

This article first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine, March 1998.

PROFESSOR STEVE MANN, of the University of Toronto, is walking around with a computer in his underpants. Academics have a reputation for eccentricity, but Mann is deadly serious. His wired undergarments are just one example of his concept of "wearable computers" which he believes will one day revolutionise the way we live.

Mann's underpants are what he calls "smart clothing". They contain a number of biological sensors which monitor his respiration, heart rate, EEG and sweat production. When he enters his house, the readings of the sensors are analysed by his in-pants computer. It then radios instructions to a base station in the bedroom, which adjusts the heating in the room accordingly.

Mann and others have been experimenting with technology like this for over 20 years, but it is only with recent advances in miniaturisation that the wearable computer is becoming a possibility.

The advances have been startling. In 1980 a wearable computer meant a heavy backpack and a bulky helmet with antennae reminiscent of a B-movie alien. Now Mann is wearing a pair of modified sunglasses with a built-in LCD display, connected to a flat-pack Pentium PC and cellular modem, concealed in his clothing, all powered by a tiny battery pack. To the casual observer, he's just a dude wearing sunglasses strolling around town. In fact, while he walks he can be sending and receiving email, surfing the Web, broadcasting and receiving video, checking his location using GPS, and talking to his wearable computer all the time.

Wearing devices to improve our faculties isn't a new idea -- think of spectacles and wristwatches. We already carry laptop and palmtop computers around with us, but these are switched on and booted up only when we need them. The idea of the wearable computer goes much further: the computer becomes "part of us" and is never switched off.

People are now constructing fully-fledged wearable systems and wearing them all the time they're awake. Mann proposes a new way of using such technology, which he calls "the eudaemonic, constant and existential" computer (n1nlf-1.eecg.toronto.edu/personaltechnologies). By "eudaemonic", he means that the user regards the computer as a part of himself (or herself): the computer ceases to be a separate entity. Likewise the system is "constant" because -- quite unlike today's machines -- it must be guaranteed not to crash. Only constancy will cement the link between human and machine. And the system is "existential" in that the user remains in full control at all times.

A typical system might have the following components: the workhorse is a fast Pentium processor. The video display is a small LED or LCD screen contained within lightweight eye-shades or as a monocular display suspended over one eye (see www.reflection.com and www.vio.com for examples of this technology). Clearly, the less obtrusive the visual display, the better, and display technology is improving fast: the MicroOptical Corporation, for example, has already produced a prototype "Eyeglass Display" which resembles an ordinary pair of prescription spectacles, except they have a 320 x 240 pixels greyscale display built-in (www.microopticalcorp.com). When the display is inactive, the spectacles revert to their normal transparency. Another, almost sc-fi, development is promised in 1998 from Microvision Inc. (www.mvis.com). They are developing a display system which will use low-power lasers to scan the image directly onto the user's retinas.

As for communicating with your wearable, the standard text input device is the "Twiddler" (www.handykey.com). This is a combined chordal keyboard and mouse, designed for one-handed operation. You can't yet buy complete wearable systems off the shelf, but if you want to try some experiments for yourself, the Wearable Computing group at the MIT Media lab have a Web page with suggested hardware and assembly instructions.

The applications of wearables are limited only by the imagination. Mann makes many predictions: you might visit a shop, for example, looking for something specific. You tell your wearable, and your shoe sensors read the shop's floorplan to guide you with vocal cues to the right place. Or perhaps you meet someone whose name escapes you: a sly button-press or secret codeword whispered to your wearable will video-grab their image, then search a face database. If a match is found, a name label will be overlaid on your display. Artificial Intelligence techniques might provide other helpful information like, "She's a friend of your boss -- be nice". Or if someone asks you a question you can't answer, your wearable can search dictionaries and encyclopedias on your behalf, flashing a likely answer up on your display, while you "um" and "ah". Another idea is that smart clothing continuously monitors your body's state, filing away the data. You end up wearing your own medical history.

Closely related is the Factoid system. Invented by Bob Mayo, a researcher at Digital Equipment Corporation's Western Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, the Factoid is a tiny wearable computer that might be fixed to a key-ring, or concealed in an earring. It has no buttons and no display and appears to the user to be completely passive. In fact, it's constantly on the lookout for facts broadcast by other Factoids that come within the 30 feet radius of its built-in radio. When you next walk near an Internet Factoid server, all the facts recently received by your personal Factoid are transmitted for permanent storage on your PC at home. There, they're checked, indexed, cross-linked, and incorporated into your personal "Facts of a Lifetime" database. Available, of course, to you at any time via your wearable.

Whether these ideas seem far-fetched or not, researchers in academia, industry and the military are now taking wearables very seriously, with two new journals devoted to the topic appearing in 1997. In August 1996 the Boeing company hosted a conference on the topic in Seattle, and in late 1997 an International Symposium was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In fact, as I was researching this article, one person received and replied to my email using his wearable.

Highly personal technology of this kind comes with a darker side, and although he believes wearable computing will revolutionise our futures, Steve Mann has reservations, especially when it comes to the possibilty of manipulating people by manipulating their wearables: "The thing that scares me is the possiblity of using it to make people more productive to the extent of controlling them", he says.

"You are what you wear", goes the saying. If you start wearing computers, what might you become?

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.