Wearable Technology: La Com-puter Mo-bile
by Marjorie Dorfman

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. . . .
A.C. Clarke

How must it feel to wear a computer? Can you believe there are actually degrees in wearable technology offered at many universities and fashion schools today? What is this new phenomenon and what happens if it rains while one is toting their own personal electromagnetic field? These and other penetrating questions will be addressed in the following article. Read, enjoy and contemplate, for the possibilities are infinite.

It is both a fascinating and terrifying thought that the line between man and machine has become less distinct as technology evolves. The vast electronics universe gets smaller and smaller as computers that once filled warehouses now barely fill a coat pocket. Over the years, we have seen a rapid evolution in appliances, devices, personal and wearable computers. Engineers have even developed an ink-jet printing technology that will allow fully assembled electronics gadgets to be printed in one step! We have also witnessed a growing community of people known as Cyborgs, who have committed themselves to developing and wearing prototypes of digital fashion all the time. The devices have gotten smaller and the interface simpler and many Cyborgs see this "second skin of technology" as the next step in human evolution. (They predict that even though none of us will grow any tails in this phase, we may well be born with cell phones attached to our ears and at least three fingers fused to our laptops!)

If there are more things in this heaven and earth, my dear Horatio, than the gods will allow, then today’s technologies have surely gone far beyond any boundaries set by ancient mariners or their marinating deities. One can find everything from wristwatches that double as cellular phones to jackets that allow Internet access from anywhere in the world. In addition, these incredible devices have triggered a wealth of new hardware and software applications, spanning everything from security and surveillance to health care. Even the standard icons of technology, robots, have not escaped this technological transformation. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee are currently developing a robot that can respond to human emotions, making one wonder if Gog will ever gag. It seems almost science fiction to consider that the Interuniversity MicroElectronics Center in Belgium is developing wearable technologies that will actually read your mind! From photocopiers to space probes, machines injected with robotic awareness have become reliable problem solvers. Put that in your pipe and have your robot smoke it!

At the University of Toronto, researchers have invented a tiny circuit that a single electron can activate. Electrons jump from the metal tip of an electrical source to a lever coated in gold. The jumping electrons pull the lever, closing a simple circuit that may be the smallest ever devised. (It’s too bad Tom Thumb has passed to the other side of the sod. He would have been the perfect advertiser for this, n’est ce pas?) If all this isn’t incredible enough, can you imagine rolling up a computer keyboard and sticking it in your pocket? Wearable computing is not really new, but it has become more mainstream with the newer technologies that are now available such as smaller and lower power processors, tiny powerful peripherals, ubiquitous wireless data networks and advances in flash memory and other storage devices.

Lucy Dunne, a Cornell University graduate student pursuing a degree in wearable technology, has developed the prototype of a smart jacket that automatically heats up in the cold and lights up when it’s dark. She claims that "the miniaturization of electronics has led to an emerging field which integrates functional clothing with portable technology." She further states that she "wanted to show how possible it is to develop wearable technology so that companies might be less afraid to leap in, since apparel companies have no experience with electronics and electronics companies have no experience with apparel." The jacketized computer offers an alternative to other personal mobile computers and goes beyond other options because unlike a cell phone or a laptop, it can be used effectively and safely while walking down the street or driving a vehicle. The computer provides "always on" instant access to information and services.

The Java jacket computer seems to have gone even one more incredible step forward. In just this past year, two technological experts working for Sun Microsystems, Doug Sutherland and John Wetherill, have created a remotely controllable Internet-enabled "house of the future" as well as a leather jacket that houses a Pentium-based computer, used to control the house. "While in Paris recently", says Sutherland, " I was able to browse home over the Internet, see what my cats were doing, turn on my television and appliances, check the weather in San Francisco and even the water temperature in my hot tub!"

Offering remote control of various home facilities is both convenient and psychologically assuring. If one forgets to turn off the coffee maker before hopping on an airplane, one can do it online. Lights can also be manipulated to look as if someone is always at home. More recently, the Java jacket even functions as an e-mail destination. An e-mail can be sent to a single address, and it goes to three destinations: Sutherland’s regular e-mail box, his pager and his jacket sleeve! This not only renders new meaning to the phrase "up one’s sleeve", but also offers a touch of vaudeville to the scene. A New Age ventriloquism permits one to call Mr. Sutherland and have his jacket respond, (if it’s in the mood, of course)!

The health field has also been revolutionized by wearable technology. Scientists have produced an electronic eye implant, which they believe could help millions of people to see again. The microchip works by stimulating cells around the retina. This in turn stimulates cells in the brain. Tests on animals have shown that the tiny microchip can restore sight. The University of Southern California has developed an e-textile, a prototype of a new breed of fabric that is woven not only for its looks but also for computing power. There is already a shirt on the bio-medical market that can constantly monitor 30 cardio-pulmonary functions. Cell phones, via a tiny mechanism that reads a heart monitor and automatically sends a warning call to a predetermined cell phone number if the user is in distress, can aid those at high risk of cardiac problems.

With all of the current advances in the field of surveillance, spies, double and triple agents could get top-of-the-line equipment via the new models of gizmos and gadgets that today can be fitted into clothing, jewelry and glasses! Not even James Bond had it so good, with all the video devices and other doodads that can be built into clothing or perched upon eyeglasses, letting you walk around town with "your own personal office." With the help of a tiny video camera built into a pair of glasses, you could create your own video log and even record the lens that is recording you! (Whether this changes one’s spy status from triple to quadruple agent is anyone’s guess!) Why not hire yourself as your own secretary? With these devices you will not save money in the long run, but you are certain to be the coolest spy on the block!

If you are a spy who works underwater instead of undercover (or if water is your cover), consider KordInterface technology which produces an entire line of underwater computers under the auspices of the Australian Institute of Marine Science WETPC. These computers are unaffected by movement or vibration and need little visual concentration. This can be helpful when dealing with hungry Blue sharks and sharp coral reefs.

Although I doubt if computer jewelry would interest Harry Winston and his ilk, there is no doubt that the mobile computer has also invaded this realm. Yes, you heard me correctly. Jewelry. Microsoft has developed a customizable paper wristwatch, which operates on FM radio and automatically resets itself when the user moves into a different time zone. (Talk about Big Brother watching every move you make!) Wearers can even customize the watch’s look and features by visiting a web site set up by Microsoft expressly for that purpose. At a man named Mark Spitzer has figured out a way to fit tiny optical displays into the frames of eyeglasses. Further, he also conceived a way to make them inconspicuous enough that the wearer would not look as if he had the insides of a radio attached to his head. (Clever fellow.) On web sites there is talk of even making them chic and stylish enough to match today’s fashion tastes!

And so, my friends, it should be perfectly clear that as far as the wearable computer is concerned, not even the sky is the limit. Other wearables worth mentioning include: credit card terminals, bar-code scanners, keyboards, word processors, audio recorders, cameras and universal belts that use wireless technology for group communications. There may even be a few more prototypes being developed as you read this article. As it is, the list keeps growing with no end in sight. All this wearable technology is fascinating and wonderful. I still have one question, however, and cannot seem to find the answer. What happens to all this wonderful state-of-the-art gear when it rains? Whatever the protocol, I’m certain that no one begins to sing not even la computer mobile. That only seems to work for Gene Kelly!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003