Grin and Wear It

Wearable computers will get sleeker, cheaper and more functional. But social issues will intrude.

Wearable computers already play a part in our lives and will grow increasingly commonplace and sophisticated, but researchers believe we are still far from becoming a society of cyborgs.

Today, it isn't unusual to see data-capable cell phones worn on belts and attached by wires to headsets. Service technicians are beginning to wear ruggedized computers on their wrists, hips or chests connected to head-mounted displays (HMD) with small viewing windows capable of showing detailed Web pages with maps and parts diagrams. Voice recognition capability helps with data input and computing commands.

Coming generations of wearables will be enhanced by the miniaturization of parts, a greater sense of fashion and use of Bluetooth and other wireless technologies to replace the wires that connect components, some experts say. Nanotechnology will also play a role in wearables in the next 10 years, making computing and communications systems microscopic in size.

But the limits on these future wearable technologies are primarily social, some analysts believe, posing potential challenges for managers who may have to cope with workers who reject being constantly connected to data and commands.

By 2006, "the social impact of wireless and wearables - in particular, privacy issues - will be an ongoing source of concern and business opportunity," says Jackie Fenn, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Above is another example of wearable computing devices for service personnel.
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Above is another example of wearable computing devices for service personnel.
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Gartner predicts that from 2006 to 2011, always-on wireless wearable computing and communication devices will become mainstream. About 60% of the European and U.S. populations ages 15 to 50 will wear a wireless communications/computing device at least six hours a day in 2007, and 75% will do so in 2010, Gartner says.

Addressing Style and Comfort

Researchers have no shortage of wearable computing prototypes under way. Xybernaut Corp. in Fairfax, Va., sells a wearable computer for service personnel. One model boasts a 500-MHz Celeron processor with 256MB of RAM and 5GB of storage, all worn on the belt or chest and connected to an HMD. Xybernaut spokesman Mike Binko says that users such as commuter train riders will find a sleek consumer version, such as Xybernaut's $1,499 Poma, a good way to read documents in privacy.

At Foster-Miller Inc. in Waltham, Mass., which is conducting research on wearable technology, there's an emphasis on "deconstructing" the wearable computer, says Douglas Thomson, business development manager. "Instead of having boxes spread about the body, we want to distribute the technology more by integrating components into the cloth," he says. Such integrated components could help airplane mechanics move about more easily and fit into smaller spaces, for example. And silver or gold wires woven into fabrics could make a vest or coat look fashionable.

In three years, it will be possible for the clothing itself to be a network, allowing a worker to move a component from a hip to the chest, depending on ergonomic preference, experts say. Or multifunction modules that aren't normally part of the wearable suit could be added, such as language translation or chemical detection components for public safety officers, Thomson says. Rechargeable battery belts could provide the power required by faster processors and stronger radios.

The Media Laboratory at MIT has a variety of projects involving wearable communications gear under way, including MIThrill, a "body bus" in a Smart Vest that's designed to be indistinguishable from ordinary clothing.

MIT has been selected to receive $50 million in basic research funds from the U.S. Army for the Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology research might lead to individual clothing fibers designed to carry electrical loads and function as transistors, capacitors or power sources, says William Mullins, chief of synthesis and processing for the Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based U.S. Army Research Office.

Mullins and analysts agree that the physical implantation of devices is very far off. But in the shorter term, Gartner's Fenn worries about what will happen if office workers are so constantly connected through wearables that the work/leisure boundary is blurred. Managers might well expect workers to access data at any hour and on weekends, she says.

But, she asks, wouldn't that require the manager in turn to consider allowing the worker to shop online or do some leisure reading on a wearable device during traditional work hours?

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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