Wireless Systems Design

Wearable Wireless Redefines Computer Usage

While Smaller, Faster Notebook Computers Were Making Mobility Less Of An Issue, Researchers Began Exploring Ways Of Using People As A Communications Platform.

At one time, wireless technology was thought of only in relation to its ability to untether the user. As we stand ready to enter a new year, the implementation of wireless technology has taken new life. Wireless technology is now viewed as a true enabler. It makes possible mobility; hands-free access to information; and anytime, anywhere access. It is always there, allowing us to remain connected to a vast network of resources and information.

What's urging this transformation forward? Quite simply, it is the changing communications platform. Years ago, the cell phone was the sole delivery vehicle for wireless technology. Today, the delivery vehicle is something much more personal: you. The user is actually becoming the communications platform of choice. The devices used to communicate on that platform are known simply as wearable-wireless technology.

Wearable wireless encompasses a wide range of devices with embedded wireless technology. They can literally be worn, or in some cases embedded, in or on a person. Such devices share a common set of features. Each is powered by a miniaturized computer, for example, and flaunts high-performance processors, flexible lightweight microdisplay technology, and sensors. Each product also has the ability to interact with the user based on the context of the situation. The wearable devices sport a range of novelties, such as unobtrusive input devices, personal wireless local-area networks, and a host of other context-sensing and communications tools. According to just one research firm, by 2007, more than 60% of the U.S. population aged 15 to 20 will be carrying or wearing a wireless computing and communications device for more than six hours a day.

It may be easy for the consumer to envision carrying a portable computer or PDA throughout one's daily activities. But it's quite a stretch to assume that consumers will suddenly see the benefit or need for embedding that same functionality into a jacket or a pair of eyeglasses. Luckily, they may be convinced by the plethora of research now underway at a multitude of corporate and academic laboratories. Such research focuses on the technology needed to make wearable-wireless devices possible, while at the same time making them plausible to the consumer.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory is a prime example. It is working to develop and prototype techniques of human-computer interaction for body-worn applications. This project, dubbed MIThril, is essentially a research platform for context-aware wearable computing ([email protected]).

The MIThril project has two prime focuses. The first is an exploration of the hardware and software components necessary for state-of-the-art wearable computing. The MIThril hardware platform combines body-worn computation, sensing, and networking in a clothing-integrated design. The software platform merges user-interface elements and machine-learning tools built on Linux. For its second objective, MIThril wants to combine lightweight RISC processors, a single-cable power/data body bus, and high-bandwidth wireless networking in a package that is as light, comfortable, and unobtrusive as street clothing.

While MIT researchers are hard at work creating a new computing environment, computer scientists at the University of California at Berkeley are piecing together a series of sensors that will one day have the ability to connect any physical environment (www.berkeley.edu). The sensors, which they refer to as SmartDust, are microscopic in size. They are powered by ambient light and use mere fractions of a watt of power during operation. These sensors are managed by an operating system known as TinyOS. Researchers claim that SmartDust will be capable of monitoring events such as light, heat, movement, position, or chemical presence in any area. It also will be able to upload that information to bigger systems, which can evaluate an event and take action as well. SmartDust should even be capable of sending the data to a live person.

The impact of corporate research laboratories also will be felt in the wearable arena. Take the IBM Almaden Research Center, which has virtually pioneered the concept of pervasive computing (www.almaden.ibm.com). One of its more interesting endeavors is the Digital Jewelry Project. The idea behind this project is to separate a device's interfaces and put them in strategically appropriate places. Then, allow them to communicate wirelessly. For example, a microphone might be embedded in a broach or necklace, while an earpiece could be housed inside an earring or a man's cuff. A ring might be embedded with a track point. Meanwhile, a bracelet could house a text-entry or dialing capability, as well as a small display. Researchers hope to combine such devices with wireless sensors or on-body biosensors.

Luckily for users, wearable-wireless technology is making its way out of the research labs. In fact, a number of devices are currently available to the average consumer. One that has received a good deal of attention is Wherify Wireless' GPS-based personal-locator wristwatch (www.wherifywireless.com). Simply strap it onto a child's wrist, and you can instantly track his or her whereabouts on a computer. This device uses enhanced GPS to determine the wearer's location. Location information is transmitted over a nationwide CDMA 1900-MHz PCS network. It is accurate to within 1 to 30 m.

Another item making waves is the SCOTTeVEST from Technology Enabled Clothing (TEC) LLC (www.scottevest.com). This fashionable, lightweight jacket allows the user to discreetly hold, conceal, and connect multiple electronic devices. It contains 17+ pockets to accommodate and recharge everything from digital cameras to a laptop. A concealed personal-area network, which is exclusively licensed through TEC, allows users to connect wires to and from electronic gadgets. Collar loops hold earpieces and/or headphones.

The availability of this product is significant, says Scott Jordan, TEC Founder and CEO. According to Jordan, "The time has come for people to start thinking about clothing as more than just attire. The proliferation of technology into our daily lives is only going to increase, providing vast opportunities for forward thinkers." Jordan adds that while mass adoption is a challenge, the real challenge for wearable-wireless technology lies in the awareness of its usability.

Charmed Technology (www.charmed.com) is best known for its CharmIT personal computer weighing a mere 1.75 lbs. Now, the company is advancing the CharmIT family with the introduction of CharmIT Pro. The CharmIT Pro development kit is powered by an 800-MHz Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 processor. It has a 256-Mb SDRAM and a 20-Gb hard drive. A video controller, 3D audio, and 10/100 Ethernet are integrated in the motherboard, along with four serial ports and two Universal Serial Bus ports. A 32-b Mini PCI expansion slot allows the addition of peripherals. CharmIT Bundle completes this system with the operating system; finger mouse; connector kit; carrying bag; and batteries, cables, and charger. Various input devices and head-mounted displays also are available.

Though all of these technologies are impressive, dramatic implications for the future of the wearable-wireless industry are in the hands of Electronic Ink (E-Ink). Hailing from E-Ink Corp. (www.eink.com), with help from the MIT Media Lab, this proprietary display-material technology is thin, flexible, and rugged. At the same time, it offers high resolution (see figure). Best of all, it duplicates the benefits of conventional ink on paper while boasting ultra-low power consumption. E-Ink display material can be laminated or applied to virtually any substrate. These capabilities, along with its compatibility with bendable, non-glass, shatterproof substrates, make the technology suitable for wearable-wireless applications.

E-Ink is a smart material that changes the image it displays when exposed to an electric field. Surfaces coated with it can therefore be updated continuously with new information. Compared to other low-power displays, E-Ink displays require ten- to a hundred-fold less power. In handheld devices, this translates into a reduction in battery bulk.

The first product based on E-Ink is called Ink-In-Motion. It is targeted for use in point-of-sale retail advertising. Commercial prototypes have been developed for the high-resolution, active-matrix displays used in personal digital assistants, mobile telecommunications, and electronic-reading devices. The company plans to commercialize these prototypes with its manufacturing partners, Philips and TOPPAN, in the middle of next year.

Are we—human beings—truly evolving into communications platforms? A number of wearable-wireless products are now available. And there is no shortage of corporate and academic research on future wearable-wireless technologies and end products. In fact, some scientists believe that this "polite technology," which notifies the user when a sale is starting on his or her favorite electronic components, may only be the beginning. The future may be built upon "comfy culture" or truly "pervasive computing." Wireless technology could actually be embedded in people. It would then let the environment react to the individual, instead of having the person react to it. Just think: This vision of reality may be closer than you realize.

TAGS: Components
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