Some travellers might stare, while others might call airport security, if you were to sit at Gate B4 fingering your thigh in court-stenographer fashion, typing email messages into your Cyber Slacks. E-broidery — thread-like circuitry sewn into wash-and-wear keyboards, developed by the Media Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology — won’t appear, however, in Donna Karan’s spring 2001 line. Still, many in the communications industry plan to don connected clothing in the near future.
Charmed Technology Co-founder/CEO Katrina Barillova displays a prototype
Current designs lean more toward futuristic fashion accessories and Windows-enabled Walkmanesque devices than off-the-rack clothing embedded with PC functionality. According to University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, wearable computers will reach blue-jean ubiquity and become inextricably tied to our daily lives. "Over an extended period of time, the wearable computer begins to function as a true extension of the mind and body, and no longer feels as if it is a separate entity. In fact, the user will often adapt to the apparatus to such a degree, that when taking it off, its absence will feel uncomfortable," says Mann, who began building cumbersome wearable configurations in the ‘70s.
Subjectright (S) Steve Mann
Clearly, he’s not alone in the thinking that wearable devices will become the wireless industry’s ultimate killer app, if not our sixth sense. Next October, researchers, manufacturers and vendors will reconvene at the fifth annual International Symposium on Wearable Computers (see Upcoming Events) to demo and discuss the latest cyborg-gear developments. Prototypes such as smart eyeglasses will do everything from display Web pages to improve memory using a combination of mini-cameras and real-time image recognition.
Katrina Barillova, co-founder and CEO of Beverly Hills, California-based Charmed Technology, maintains somewhat-less-than-modest sales quotas for her company’s array of fashion accessories intermingled with wireless Internet devices. "Our goal is to help the world’s six billion people get connected to the Internet," she states plainly. Barillova seeks to accomplish this goal by building bargain-basement devices. Ultimately, she envisions the technology offered for free with the signing of a service contract.
Charmed’s products range from beta-tested business badges worn at networking events, which exchange contact information and automatically build smart databases, to conceptual GPS-equipped health monitors that can notify paramedics of an impending heart attack. These highly personalised wearables "learn" their users’ habits, patterns and preferences. And since their devices utilise biometrics technology — thumbprint, retina or heart scan — only the owner can access the system. The full gear typically consists of an eyepiece, handheld or integrated voice-activated input peripheral and a separate Bluetooth-enabled CPU. Consumers cannot yet walk into the local electronics retailer and purchase this technology, though. Networking badges are available for business-to-business events, and computer kits can be purchased through the company’s Web site.
Mainstay manufacturers are also entering the connected clothing market. Levi Strauss & Co partnered with Philips Research in Redhill, UK, which has experimented with wearable electronics since 1995, to develop its ICD+™ (Industrial Clothing Division) fashions for European consumers. Four jacket styles (about $900) contain an integrated communication and entertainment system, consisting of an MP3 player and a GSM phone, controlled by a unified remote control. The system uses voice command via a microphone hidden in the collar, and retractable earphones extend out from the shoulders for listening to both music and phone calls.
Other types of wearable computers, however, serve purely utilitarian functions. Funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wearable PCs from Minnesota-based ViA, Inc are currently being used by the Army’s Military Police in field tests. "ViA’s Crusoe-based computer has the potential to be a central component in a soldier’s weapon system, providing communication and information management in critical combat situations," says Henry Girolamo, program manager of the US Army Natick Soldier Center, in Natick, Massachusetts.
The US-based tech firm’s 22-ounce computers also wrap around the waists of workers at Northwest Airlines, Nabisco and General Dynamics for use in customer service, distribution centre, inspection and maintenance applications. Northwest tested various tablet and laptop devices, which proved heavy and required two hands. "Our inspectors needed full PC functionality in a lightweight design that left their hands free to perform their inspections," says Chuck Layton, Northwest’s business specialist, Technical Operations Systems. "Inspectors like the hands-free operation. They work in tight spaces and don’t have places to set down traditional mobile-computing devices or keyboards."
All indications point to a highly portable, wireless world of computing and communications. One question remains: Will Cyber Slacks be dry clean only?