Wearable Computer

Wearable computers, also known as body-borne computers, are miniature electronic devices that are worn by the bearer under, with or on top of clothing. One of the main advantages of a wearable computer is consistency: there is a constant interaction between the computer and user, i.e. there is no need to turn the device on or off. Another useful feature is the ability to multi-task: it is not necessary to stop what you are doing to use the device; it is augmented into all other actions.

These devices can be incorporated by the user to act like a prosthetic. It can therefore be an extension of the user’s mind and/or body. Many issues are common to the wearables as with mobile computing, ambient intelligence (electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people), and ubiquitous computing research communities, including power management and heat dissipation, software architectures, wireless and personal area networks.

In many applications, user’s skin, hands, voice, eyes, arms as well as motion or attention are actively engaged as the physical environment. Wearable computer were initially developed for sensory integration, e.g. to help people see better (whether in task-specific applications like camera-based welding helmets, or for everyday use like computerized ‘digital eyeglass’) or to help people understand the world better, behavioral modeling, health care monitoring systems, service management, smartphones, and electronic textiles. Today still wearable computing is a topic of active research, with areas of study including user interface design, augmented reality, and pattern recognition. The use of wearables for specific applications or for compensating disabilities as well as supporting elderly people steadily increases.

Depending on how broadly one defines both ‘wearable’ and ‘computer,’ the first wearable computer could be as early as the first abacus on a string, worn around the neck, or, later, a 16th century abacus ring, or perhaps the first wristwatch made by Breguet for the Queen of Naples in 1810, or the covert timing devices hidden in shoes to cheat at roulette, by Thorp and Shannon in the 1960s and 1970s. However common understanding is that a computer as a user-programmable item for complex algorithms, interfacing and data management. In this modern meaning, the wearable computer was invented by Steve Mann at the University of Toronto, in the late 1970s. Another early wearable system was a camera-to-tactile vest for the blind, published by C.C. Collins in 1977, that converted images into a 1024-point, 10-inch square tactile grid on a vest. On the consumer end, 1977 also saw the introduction of the HP-01 algebraic calculator watch by Hewlett-Packard.

In 1981 Steve Mann designed and built a backpack-mounted, 8-bit wearable computer with text, graphics, and multimedia capability, as well as video capability (cameras and other photographic systems). Mann went on to be an early and active researcher in the wearables field, especially known for his 1994 creation of the ‘Wearable Wireless Webcam,’ the first example of Lifelogging. In 1989 Reflection Technology marketed the ‘Private Eye’ head-mounted display, which scanned a vertical array of LEDs across the visual field using a vibrating mirror. This display gave rise to several hobbyist and research wearables, including Gerald ‘Chip’ Maguire’s IBM / Columbia University Student Electronic Notebook. The Student Electronic Notebook consisted of the Private Eye, Toshiba diskless AIX notebook computers (prototypes) and a stylus based input system plus virtual keyboard, and used direct-sequence spread spectrum radio links to provide all the usual TCP/IP based services, including NFS mounted file systems and X11, all running in the Andrew Project environment.

In 1993, the Private Eye was used in Thad Starner’s wearable, based on Doug Platt’s system and built from a kit from Park Enterprises, a Private Eye display on loan from Devon Sean McCullough, and the Twiddler chording keyboard made by Handykey. Many iterations later this system became the MIT ‘Tin Lizzy’ wearable computer design, and Starner went on to become one of the founders of MIT’s wearable computing project. 1993 also saw Columbia University’s augmented-reality system known as KARMA: Knowledge-based Augmented Reality for Maintenance Assistance. Users would wear a Private Eye display over one eye, giving an overlay effect when the real world was viewed with both eyes open. KARMA would overlay wireframe schematics and maintenance instructions on top of whatever was being repaired. The system used sensors attached to objects in the physical world to determine their locations, and the entire system ran tethered from a desktop computer.

In 1994, Edgar Matias and Mike Ruicci of the University of Toronto, debuted a ‘wrist computer.’ Their system presented an alternative approach to the emerging head-up display plus chord keyboard wearable. It was built from a modified HP 95LX palmtop computer and a Half-QWERTY one-handed keyboard. With the keyboard and display modules strapped to the operator’s forearms, text could be entered by bringing the wrists together and typing. The same technology was used by IBM researchers to create the half-keyboard ‘belt computer.’ Also in 1994, Mik Lamming and Mike Flynn at Xerox EuroPARC demonstrated the ‘Forget-Me-Not,’ a wearable device that would record interactions with people and devices and store this information in a database for later query. It interacted via wireless transmitters in rooms and with equipment in the area to remember who was there, who was being talked to on the telephone, and what objects were in the room, allowing queries like ‘Who came by my office while I was on the phone to Mark?’

Also in 1994, DARPA started the Smart Modules Program to develop a modular approach to wearable and carryable computers, with the goal of producing a variety of products including computers, radios, navigation systems and human-computer interfaces that have both military and commercial use. In 1996, DARPA went on to host the ‘Wearables in 2005’ workshop, bringing together industrial, university and military visionaries to work on the common theme of delivering computing to the individual. In 2002, as part of Kevin Warwick’s ‘Project Cyborg,’ Warwick’s wife, Irena, wore a necklace which was electronically linked to Warwick’s nervous system via an implanted electrode array. The color of the necklace changed between red and blue dependent on the signals on Warwick’s nervous system.

The current moves in standardization with IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and several industry groups (e.g. Bluetooth) leads to more interfacing under the WPAN (wireless personal area network) and the WBAN (Wireless body area network) designs for interfacing and networking. The developments of wearable computing now encompasses Rehabilitation Engineering, Ambulatory intervention treatment, life guard systems, and Defense wearable systems.

The commercialization of general-purpose wearable computers, as led by companies such as Xybernaut, CDI, and ViA, Inc. has thus far met with limited success. Publicly traded Xybernaut tried forging alliances with companies such as IBM and Sony in order to make wearable computing widely available, but in 2005 their stock was delisted and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid financial scandal and federal investigation. ViA, Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and subsequently ceased operations. 1998 Seiko marketed the Ruputer, a computer in a (fairly large) wristwatch, to mediocre returns. In 2001 IBM developed and publicly displayed two prototypes for a wristwatch computer running Linux. In 2002 Fossil, Inc. announced the Fossil Wrist PDA, which ran the Palm OS, after several delays it was finally made available in 2005. Timex Datalink is another example of a practical wearable computer. Hitachi launched a wearable computer called Poma in 2002. Eurotech offers the ZYPAD, a wrist wearable touch screen computer with GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and which can run a number of custom applications.

Evidence of the allure of the wearable computer and the weak market acceptance is evident with market leading Panasonic, who has specialized in mobile computing with their Toughbook line for over 10 years and has extensive market research into the field of portable, wearable computing products. In 2002, Panasonic introduced a wearable brick computer coupled with a handheld or armworn touchscreen. The brick would communicate wirelessly to the screen and the internet or other networks.


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