Wearing a computer? Only if you don't look foolish
By Jean-Baptiste Piggin Mar 8, 2007, 6:06 GMT
Hamburg - Computers can be tucked under an arm or lugged around in a laptop bag, but Michael Lawo, a German academic, thinks you should wear them in clothing.
Lawo, who runs a wearable-computing laboratory at the University of Bremen in northern Germany, says the issue is no longer how to make computers small enough, since personal digital assistant (PDA) computers already fit in a pocket.
Specialists in the field are already looking at ways to eliminate touch-screens and buttons. Wearable computers would be controlled by gestures and observed through tiny displays built into spectacles.
Lawo said the essential difference between today's computers and this vision of tomorrow is that wearable computers must be able to respond by themselves to locations and situations.
By analogy, this resembles the difference between an online route planner, which can only print out an itinerary and map, and a car navigation device, which additionally 'knows' the car's current speed, direction and position.
'The only things that then interest me as driver are whether I am on the correct road or not,' Lawo explained at a presentation in Hamburg, Germany.
Wearable computing systems are already on the market, with work clothing wired up to help hospital doctors or maintenance workers. The US Army's Land Warrior project is testing infantry helmets with navigation computers and displays in them.
Wearable computers will only be accepted if they are comfortable, Lawo explains.
'The computer must be in a form that you can carry without it being obtrusive. In a backpack is not good enough. Today's wearables often come as body-packs that are on a belt along with a head-mounted display,' he said.
While first-time users often complain that the displays are awkward and tiring, Lawo says this is no different from the complaints of people who have to wear reading glasses for the first time.
'They say it hurts the ears, or presses on the nose, or feels funny, but after a few weeks, they get used to it,' he said. 'Spectacle wearers adapt to their wearable displays much more easily.'
There is also the 'social component,' he adds: people feel embarrassed about looking like a bionic man or robot and do not want to be tricked out with helmets and keyboards.
A memorable US situation comedy of the 1960s, Get Smart, featured a secret agent whose mobile phone was concealed in his shoe. There was always a laugh when he took off the shoe off and held it to his ear to talk: odd behaviour that today's researchers want to avoid.
Mobile phones in wristwatches have also never caught on, but headsets have.
'When the first Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones came out, people would walk down the street, seemingly talking to themselves, and it seemed strange. But now we are getting used to it,' said Lawo.
Lawo believes that society will ultimately accept wearable computers, provided the devices do not obstruct social interaction. This is another reason the computers have to recognize their own surroundings without help from the user.
The computers will also have to recognize sign language: either overt gestures such as holding thumb and small finger apart in a 'let's phone' gesture, or covert signs such as those used by airline cabin personnel to talk to one another without passengers noticing.
Motion sensors in the Wii Remote, the wireless controller for Nintendo's newest game console, demonstrate how computers can be controlled by human gestures, and Lawo says gaming and sport are both driving wearable research.
He said cables and plugs remain a problem, with laboratories still waiting for fabrics where the threads can be used as wires.
Lawo is the contact for Wear IT at Work, a project set up by the European Union with a volume of 24 million euros (31 million dollars) and described as the largest project world-wide in wearable computing.
Ultimately the field can only grow if the stakeholders can agree to connect their devices with common standards.
Lawo also runs the Open Wearable Computing Group, an organization seeking such standards, which will have its own stand at the Cebit computing and communications trade fair in the German city of Hanover from March 15 to 21..
Internet: http://www.owcg.org/ http://www.wearitatwork.com/© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur