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Wearable computing represents the next big frontier in the push for the "always on, always active, always connected" environment of the future. Envisioned by some as a small hidden device with transmission and storage capabilities that is wirelessly connected to an ear-mounted speaker/microphone, most people think of wearable computers as more suited for Star Trek than for a shopping mall. This article discusses the status of wearable computers; the challenges faced by software and hardware manufacturers in developing effective and widely accepted wearable devices; and the commencement of a new paradigm for how wearable technology can create value for consumers and enterprises.
Some organizations, such as Gartner, see the wearable trend as being an integral part of society. Gartner predicts that by 2010, 40% of adults and 75% of teenagers will be utilizing wearable devices, and 70% of the population will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the e-world than in the physical world. Other organizations have echoed similar sentiments, citing the benefits of wearable devices as too big a value to ignore.
For instance, in the future, a "digital-persona" (your electronic profile that manages and defines your interactions with other computers and systems) may choose to allow you to snooze an extra 30 minutes because you received an update to your calendar stating that an 8:00 a.m. sales meeting has been postponed. Of course, this was done after checking the traffic report along your daily route to ensure you can arrive at work at your regular time of 8:30 a.m., and no other new tasks had fallen on your plate in the interim, which would require you to arrive early.
On your way to work, you are informed of gas and coffee specials with vendors along your route. You choose to get coffee now; you have enough gas and can fill up your gas tank after work. Once at work, you begin refining your sales presentation that has now been rescheduled for 11:00 a.m. at another building. Reviewing your presentation while walking to the other building, you notice a spelling error and fix it immediately. Upon arriving at the meeting and preparing to deliver your presentation, the presentation is immediately uploaded into the computer attached to the projector. As you begin, you are informed via instant message that some members in the room are not being acknowledged by the face recognition system. Your digital persona suggests removing a later slide with sensitive pricing information; you agree, and the slide is instantly removed, all done behind-the-scenes while you continue speaking.
Upon completing the presentation, you are packing up when an urgent e-mail arrives from your boss regarding a client emergency. You quickly finish and rush to his office, reading the e-mail while simultaneously calling his secretary to let the boss know you will be at his office in 10 minutes.
"Wearable" devices -- what are they?
Although other technologies surely must continue to evolve in order to enable true pervasive computing, wearable devices clearly bring with them the greatest amount of value and are likely the final piece of the puzzle. Today's handheld computers and other assortments of mobile devices (pagers, phones, PDAs, PDA watches, etc.) offer a glimpse of where the industry is moving as the devices continue to decrease in size, while seemingly improving in functionality. Ultimately, these devices will become integrated in such a manner as to provide minimal distraction to the user by not preventing them from performing other tasks (cooking, for instance), even as they utilize the device (read e-mail).
Wearable computers are miniature devices that enable a user to conduct computerized tasks with 100% portability and freedom, all nearly transparently. Wearable computers are integrated within our wardrobe and lifestyle, so as to appear invisible, offering a multitude of input and output mechanisms that allow a user to continue with other tasks even as they interact with the computer and environment around them. Additionally, while the advanced functionality of today's handheld devices has severe form factor implications, wearable devices of the future will likely function more as thin clients, providing device manufacturers more latitude in absence of the excessive battery and processing power requirements tied to today's devices.
As an example, the 802.11b WLAN offers this capability today to corporations deploying WLAN stations in strategic locations. WLAN stations can be configured to restrict access to sensitive content in certain physical locations, and restrict user access altogether. Streetbeam is an outdoor solution; their Remote Access Mobile Point (RAMP) continuously beams out a message prompting users to accept advertising information. This information, typically location-specific, is transmitted via infrared to the device once the supporting display application has been downloaded.
Input/output (I/O) mechanisms
For example, Sony Computer Science Laboratories has been performing cutting-edge research on input technologies, and two of their ideas, called GestureWrist and GesturePad, could be something we are all using by the end of this decade. With the goal being to make inputs to your wearable device as conceptually unnoticeable as possible, GestureWrist is a wristwatch-type input device that recognizes human gestures by measuring changes in wrist shape and forearm movements. Networked to a visual display, GestureWrist could serve as the user's virtual mouse.
Companies such as Xybernaut have produced wearable devices capitalizing on more traditional I/O vehicles. Xybernaut, who's core customer is Bell Canada, offers a hands-free wearable computer that includes a body-worn, voice-activated, high-power processor and a VGA color flat panel or head-mounted color display with microphone and eyepiece, through which the user sees a video display. The battery-powered central computer weighs less than 2 pounds, and clips onto a vest or belt. The 1.1-inch head-mount display has an optional miniature video camera or palm-size color touchscreen that straps onto the arm. (Bell Canada trial users claimed to have saved nearly an hour a day.)
A key advantage of wearable visual displays rests in their ability to project an image that appears similar to that of a PC from the user's vantage point. This output mechanism will likely become very popular as it continues to evolve and better integrate with current eyewear. Voice remains a prospective option in both input and output technology, as well.
Invisibility and social acceptance
The other Sony prototype mentioned -- GesturePad -- is an exploration into "interactive clothing," which is certainly a step in the right direction. GesturePad is a small pad that can be inserted into traditional clothing, thus transforming the clothes into interactive devices. GesturePad is actually a thin layer of sensor electrodes that can detect finger motions applied to the outside of clothing fabric. A GesturePad inserted into the lapel of sport coat could control a PowerPoint presentation, the volume of an MP3 player, or the scroll bar of a Web page being projected from a person's eyewear. Furthermore, multiple sensors could be inserted into any individual clothing item, each having a specific function.
Watches provide a clear avenue into which wearable computers have already began to infiltrate. Fossil, one of America's leading watch companies, recently announced a new Wrist PDA, featuring both Palm and PocketPC versions. The watch provides read-only content, with current support for infrared beaming as the transfer technology between handheld PDAs and the Wrist PDA. The watch can store up to 190k of primarily PIM-type (Personal Information Management) data such as contacts, schedule, to-dos, and memos.
IBM and Citizen Watch Co. recently joined forces to deliver IBM's WatchPad, a prototype wearable computer. The WatchPad features a 320 x 240 monochrome VGA display, Bluetooth and infrared wireless connectivity, and speaker, microphone, and fingerprint-sensor functions. The goal of WatchPad is to begin delivering new human-computer interactions, such as using a watch to control a presentation or other nearby devices, and to receive, deliver, or store pertinent information.
Hypercom Corporation and WearLogic announced their alliance, which will allow consumers to use WearLogic's leather pocket wallets for wireless payments at checkout counters using Hypercom terminals. WearLogic claims to have proprietary technology that can transform a traditional leather wallet into a mobile financial device containing a flexible screen, ATM-like soft keys, and an intuitive keyboard. Users can track financial account information, purchase products in physical and electronic environments, and download and store Web-based information such as addresses or driving directions.
Thick or thin
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a device being too small or too light for a mobile user interested in a wearable device. However, the user must take into account the worst-case scenario of no network connectivity, and determine what functionality is absolutely essential 100% of the time, even in non-connected states.
Finally, contextual awareness refers to one's digital persona, and the ability to obtain and store rich user information beyond preferences and location. This includes traits such as physiological (heart rate, body temperature) and emotional states, and how those attributes can be used in conjunction with other location- and time-specific data to determine a course of action or to guide an interaction. Should the device be proactive or transparent right now? Does the user want to receive this phone call? Is this message important? What is the user's intent during this task right now?
A wearable device's ability to handle these type of inquiries while delivering a consistent user experience is what will truly drive wearable devices to reach critical mass.
Similar to the energy problem, a contradiction of requirements exists here as well. A larger reliance on the pervasive environment around a user requires more trust by the user in the devices and infrastructure composing that environment, even as some users today feel uncomfortable using their credit cards online. Conversely, the pervasive environment needs much more information about users in order to ascertain a user's identity and authorization, and this level of information is much greater than what users will provide today. Gaining confidence and mutual trust between the user and system will be challenging to say the least, and ultimately may prove to be the biggest barrier to wide-scale adoption of intelligent wearable devices.
Of course, this change will not occur overnight, as we can only move as fast as the technology evolves. Companies like Levi Strauss are already looking to capitalize on the wearable concept, offering a line of jackets that incorporates a hidden MP3 player and mobile phone connected to a remote control and microphone in the collar. Peer-to-peer technology companies also continue to proliferate, with peer-to-peer technology perhaps playing an important role in the energy conservation challenge associated with wearable devices.
Of course, even as we hear about wireless wallets and interactive clothing, we are occasionally informed of real mind-numbing advancements like those by the Israeli scientists who developed a DNA computer so tiny that a trillion of them could be combined to perform a billion operations per second, expanding our horizons and challenging issues we might have viewed previously as insurmountable. DNA computers currently have no business implications, implying that some people aren't too interested.
However, if I told you that these DNA computers are being considered for potentially operating within human cells and acting as a monitoring device to detect disease-causing changes and synthesizing drugs to fix them, does the term "wearable computer" and proactive interactions take on a new meaning?