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March 5, 2002

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Fashion takes high-tech turn
Wearable PCs are no sci-fi fantasy


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By Lamont Wood. Special to the Tribune. Lamont Wood is a freelance writer based in Texas
Published March 4, 2002

A look into the not-so-distant future:

Five years from now, you're sitting on a plane. You see tiny colored lights sparkling on the glasses of the person sitting next to you. And his fingers are dancing, as if typing on an invisible keyboard.

But you've seen this before. He's at work in his mobile office, and his office is wherever he sits because he is wearing a computer.

In a world where office workers may use a laptop, a hand-held and a cell phone--and feel compelled to lug all three around--wireless company executives are predicting "convergence," where portable devices will jell into one, much like the gizmo envisioned on the airplane.

Wearable computers have been used in the industrial market for a decade. For instance, the devices let warehouse workers log inventory without repeatedly running to a computer. Wearing a battery-powered device with a small touch screen, running custom software and costing several thousand dollars, workers are free to roam the floor.

But now the technology is reaching the consumer market--with cheap devices and general-purpose software--and it could change your outlook on fashion.

At this week's Comdex show at McCormick Place, a new program will feature wearable computing technology.

The presentation is hosted by Xybernaut Inc. of Fairfax, Va., which recently debuted the first wearable personal optical mobile assistant for consumers called the "poma." For about $1,500, the tiny display screen mounts on a loop over the user's head in front of one eye, connected to a hand-held processing unit that fits in a pocket and runs a version of Microsoft Windows. The "thumb mouse" used for input looks like a big ballpoint pen, or a small joystick, and is operated by the user's thumb.

The poma's "screen" is mounted on a loop over the user's head and its processing unit fits in a pocket. It's "thumbnail" control looks like a big ballpoint pen, or a small joystick operated by the user's thumb.

With the poma, "you have the impression that there's a 13-inch computer display in front of you," said Scott Jordan, head of Chicago-based Technology Enabled Clothing and a poma user. "It's definitely the way things are going."

By 2007, about 60 percent of the adult population will be using such devices, both for personal and business applications, according to Jackie Fenn, an analyst at Gartner Inc., a market research firm in Stamford, Conn.

One could, Fenn predicts, comparison shop on the Web site of one store while physically browsing in another. Also, she predicts, because these devices will use next-generation wireless networks, wearers could view pop-up ads from the stores they walk by in the mall. And teenagers could earn free music downloads by just hanging out at the mall because they are likely to buy something.

But we're not there yet. First, input is a limitation. With the poma's thumb mouse, you can move the cursor across a screen keyboard to click the letters you want, a tedious and inconvenient process.

One alternative is speech input, which has become reliable for preselected command words spoken in isolation, said Ed McConaghay, head of ViA Inc., a developer of lightweight wearable computers based in Burnsville, Minn. For continuous speech dictation, accuracy is about 80 percent, meaning you're unlikely to finish a sentence successfully.

Typists will prefer a real keyboard, but lugging one around is inconvenient. Which brings us to "air typing."

Playing the air keyboard

Bruce Howard, head of a start-up called Lightglove LLC in Virginia, plans to market a device that you strap around your wrist, under your hand. With tiny light sources and detectors, it can track the movements of your fingers, which are mapped to a screen keyboard. Specialized gestures may eventually replace keyboard strokes. Another bonus: Users can place their arms in any position, minimizing the danger of repetitive stress injuries.

Howard is targeting the holiday shopping season to launch the product. Initial pricing will be close to $400 per Lightglove, but Howard anticipates prices dropping to $99 with full-scale production. (A single glove could replace a mouse, he said.)

Another keyboardless keyboard is the Senseboard VK, demonstrated at recent trade shows by the Swedish firm Senseboard Technologies AB. Strapped to the palms, it senses the movement of your tendons, said spokesman Joe Waldygo. It should be available in the summer, for about $150 for a wired pair and $200 for a wireless pair.

Samsung is developing a device called the Scurry, which some users at recent technology shows said offered more accurate results than the Senseboard. Ringlike sensors on the fingers are connected to a processing device on the wrist. No pricing or shipping dates were available.

Even if these products solve the problem of inputting information into any wearable computer, output remains a stumbling block. The biggest issue? The tiny head-mounted monitor blocks your view.

But one of the promises of wearable computing is "augmented reality"--using geo-positioning and head tracking systems, information can be superimposed on the user's field of vision overlaid on the landscape, allowing the user to see the real world and the overlay simultaneously. For instance, mapping software can tell you the address of the building you're looking at.

Stryker Instruments of Kalamazoo, Mich., is working on an augmented reality system for orthopedic surgeons, where the doctor sees an X-ray image of a bone superimposed on his view of it. In less-technical terms, the system could be described as X-ray vision glasses.

Stryker's see-through head-mounted display is made by Microvision Inc. of Bothell, Wash. Its president, Rick Rutkowski, said the firm is working on a version that bounces colored light beams off a tiny, vibrating mirror onto the inside of the user's glasses. Scanning back and forth, the beam forms a full-color image with the resolution of a computer display, with brightness adjusted to contrast with the background. The display could even have a bifocal arrangement, with the user looking down to read the screen and up to see the landscape, he said.

The units should resemble ordinary glasses. Prototypes are already being tested. "We expect to see low-cost production in 2004, with an end-user price around $100," he said.

Virtual instuments for pilots

At Phantom Works, the Seattle-based advanced research and development unit of Boeing Co., crew station technology manager Richard Edwards said Boeing is developing systems for helicopter pilots that use the Microvision display and a head tracker. Every time the pilot looks down, the system will display modern "virtual instruments" atop the pilot's view of the old-fashioned ones. The latter can be torn out of the plane or helicopter's cockpit to lighten the aircraft's weight, or left as backup, he said.

The pilot's headphones will have a 3-D sound system so that the voice of another crew member will seem to come from that person, to avoid confusion. Audio "earcons" will signal certain events--a sucking sound will warn of fuel exhaustion, for instance. Speech input will be used to control non-essential systems.

In addition to the headphones' sensors, the pilot will wear a "tactile" vest containing tiny motors that will actually nudge the pilot away from danger, Edwards said.

Now that's a fashion statement.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune


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