Sunday, February 11, 2007

Wearable technology: Fact or fiction?

The US Army was one of the first agencies to recognise the potential applications for wearable technology and developed the Land Warrior system. This was designed to increase the ability of its fighters on the battlefield with each soldier connected to a wireless network. Relevant information about the battlefield was presented to the soldier on a helmet-mounted display and the system also monitored the vital signs of each soldier via sensors in their clothing. This data enabled field medics to identify troops in need of assistance, and prioritize care.

Cross over in to fashionable Wearable computer technology has been less successful and could be considered to be hyped to the hilt, which begs the question.

Where is it?

Obviously there is no shortage of people with a Bluetooth headset clipped to their ear and although it is hardly haute couture, it does infer the fashionable want to wear the new technologies.

Further advances in telephone technology include a wearable communicator badge produced by Vocera and allows the user to speak to anyone else within the range of the wireless communications network by saying his/her name. The system uses the increasingly common radio-based WiFi technology.

IBM have developed prototype digital jewellery matching set of silver earrings, necklace, watch, and ring.

The set functions as a wearable cell phone and is the ultimate in Personal Area Network (PAN) i.e. computing devices distributed around the body in jewelry items. Individual devices communicate via tiny, low power radio frequency devices similar to Bluetooth, but are limited to communication within an area of just a few feet. Their function is principally personal-centric and deal with lifestyle issues such as entertainment, voice communication, and location-based information. The wearer receives a call alert when the ring blinks using IBMs Trackpoint technology. The callers phone number is displayed on the watch and by pressing a button on the watch the call can be heard through an earring, which has a tiny speaker embedded in it. The necklace has a tiny microphone inside and acts as a mouthpiece. MI3, stuff that would have James Bond, green with envy and the ultimate in nerd wear. However, the IBM set is still not available commercially.

A little down the price ladder is a watch that receives news and weather reports from MSN Direct and of course “Apple- Nike + iPod” gives you music wherever you go, thanks to a small wireless sensor fitted into the soles of an adapted range of Nike training shoes. This emits a beam back to the iPod nano which contains information, such as speed and distance covered. The player provides audio feedback on your performance and will change the type of music track to suit the runners pace. Despite the obvious potential to use shoes as a site of wearable technology there is really very little development beyond heel strike, despite the hype.

The most successful to date, integration of nanotechnology is in jackets. LEDs sewn are sown into the fabric and display text messages from mobile phones or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). NYX Clothing and Levi Strauss have been marketing these for some time. Wired jackets with dedicated pockets for cell phones and MP3 players are designed and built in collaboration with Philips Electronics, and the jackets come with integrated MP3 players and cell phones. The earphones and microphone are built into the collar.

A few years ago, Burton Snowboards teamed up with Apple to install their iPod MP3 player into Burton's Amp Jacket. The controls are mounted in the sleeve of the jacket, allowing the snowboarder to change songs. As yet these jackets are not commercially available.

Nike too has in the past ventured into the realm of wearable MP3 players. These digital music players use portable memory cards and can be strapped onto biceps, hung around the neck or connected to a belt.

In Japan, the Lovegety beeper acts like a "love badge" to match potential suitors. Each badge contains information about likes, dislikes and personality traits of the wearer. When one love badge moves within range of another, the devices share information via Bluetooth radio waves to determine whether the wearers are a good match. Where there is compatability the device lights up, green for go and red for no.

The potential to use eye glasses is another area where development is taking place but the main drawback to all wearable technology is the absence of a reliable power supply. Battery life and size is one of the key areas holding back the proliferation of wearable technology. While lithium ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries are efficient and lightweight they still represent the heaviest components of portable computing device.

Interesting site
CTIA-The Wireless Association is the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, and represents carriers, manufacturers and wireless Internet providers.

Reviewed 21/02/2017

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