Election Section

Now, a computer you can wear

By Elizabeth M. Gillepsia The Associated Press
Wednesday October 09, 2002

SEATTLE — Say you’re so hooked to your mouse, keyboard and computer monitor you can hardly tear yourself away from your terminal. 

You don’t have to. You can wear your computer. 

Thad Starner, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech, has been walking around with his for nearly 10 years. 

“Most people who stand in line at the airport are just waiting there, bored. I’m writing the next chapter of my book or reading e-mail,” Starner said Tuesday at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers at the University of Washington. 

Starner’s gear, which costs about $4,500, includes a micro-optical monitor hooked to his glasses, a cell phone-shaped keyboard he straps to the back of his hand and a small black bag that holds a 1 1/2-pound computer more powerful than many desktop models. 

“We’re going through another computer revolution,” said Starner, who, as a student, founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Wearable Computing Project in 1993 and is now part owner of Charmed Technology Wireless Eyewear, based in Santa Monica, Calif. “Just like the change from the mainframe to the minicomputer and ... the minicomputer to the PC, we’re going to have a switch to wearable, which is going to completely change the way people think about computing.” 

One company, San Jose, Calif.-based Infineon Technologies, has designed a jacket with a built-in MP3 player controlled by voice recognition and a flexible keyboard sewn into the sleeve. 

Another — Microvision, Inc., based in Bothell northeast of Seattle — markets a personal display system called Nomad. It’s a headset with a two-dimensional display window that hangs in front of one eye. 

Surgeons are beginning to use it during image-guided operations like hip replacements. Normally, they’d have to turn their heads to watch a television monitor showing them where they’re supposed to cut. When they wear a Nomad, the images they need to see are right in front of their eyes, superimposed on the patient. 

Some small-plane pilots use the devices so they can keep their eyes on the sky and their gauges at the same time. 

“They’re retailing at $10,000, which obviously you and I can’t buy,” Microvision spokesman Matt Nichols said. “But with volume, you’ve got a product where the components are only $40 or $50.” 

The sixth annual symposium, sponsored by the Institute of Electoral and Electronic Engineers, runs through Thursday. 

Tuesday’s lineup included a fashion show where models showed off MP3-wired jackets, arm-mounted keyboards, jackets that monitor your heart rate and various head-mounted display systems. 

Some concepts aren’t yet ready for the marketplace, but to wearable computer gurus, ideas can be as exciting as actual products. 

Imagine, for example, a system that would help firefighters storming into a smoky building pinpoint the source of the blaze by linking up with electronic heat sensors installed throughout the building. 

Or, say, a battalion chief with a computerized display of a burning building’s layout guiding firefighters as they rush through hallways. 

“He says, ’No. 3, you need to go there,’ and No. 3 sees an arrow telling him where to go,” said Tom Furness, director of the UW’s Human Interaction Technology Lab. 

Sounds sci-fi, but Furness said it’s no pipe dream. 

“It’s really mainly a repackaging of a lot of technology that already exists” Furness said. 

With the prevalence of cell phones, personal digital assistants and global positioning systems, some argue the only challenge left is figuring out how to sew them all into shirts and pants. 

“Wearable computing is inevitable,” said Mark Billinghurst, director of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in New Zealand and chairman of this year’s conference. “Over the last decade, we’ve seen computers migrate from the desk side to the desk top, then to the lap and to the hand. It won’t be long before the computing power of today’s handhelds will be embedded into clothing.”