Think computers, only smaller. So small you could swallow one or wear one in your long johns. So smart they’d fade into the background and you’d notice only the information you were getting, not where it was coming from.
That’s the hope - and the promise - of wearable computers, the next phase in the personal computing revolution, embodied in the eye-catching array of devices displayed this week at a conference sponsored by the Boeing Co.
Already, the Army has a computer the size of a pill that could be swallowed to track the core body temperatures of soldiers on training missions. A pager-sized alarm would alert the commanding officer that a recruit was about to go into hypothermia.
In San Diego, the Navy is building a “sensate liner” - an intelligent set of long johns woven from conductive polymers that would tell medics what was wrong with a wounded soldier and how soon they should get there.
“It can tell the difference between a high-speed round and a bayonet and, using reflective microscopy, it can tell if the soldier is bleeding, and if it’s a vein or an artery depending on the oxygen content,” said Eric Lind of the Naval Command Control and Ocean Surveillance Center.
Although military applications were a major topic at the Boeing Wearable Computers Workshop, civilian uses were also very much in evidence.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers envision a world where the computer a person is wearing would interact with its environment, plucking information out of the air for its master’s use. Scientists have already set up visual tags throughout the lab that broadcast information to whomever looks at them through a wearable lens.
“We have a plant in our lab which doesn’t get watered appropriately,” said Thad Starner of MIT’s vaunted Media Lab. “A sensor on the plant notes when it is watered and sends a message to the room computer. A month later, the plant can send the message ‘I need to be watered’ and it would be uploaded to the system so that anyone looking at the plant would see a little note that says, ‘Water Me!”’
At the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers are building retinal scanning displays that would get rid of the need for head-mounted screens entirely. Users would instead wear a little projector just below the eye.
The projector would use an extremely low-power laser to paint a picture one pixel at a time on the retina, at the back of the eye.
How to supply power to these wearable computer systems is still being worked out.
At MIT, scientists are investigating the possibility of computers powered by the human body. One option is an electrical system that would enable a person to produce a charge simply by walking.