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Wearable Wear

Why a wearable?

By Rick Johnson
April 2000, issue 33

THE WEARABLE SCENE is truly a paradox. When the average person thinks of a wearable PC, images come to mind of a man yelling in an open square and scaring pigeons during a progressive, but vague IBM commercial. However, as of this writing they still only have a prototype. Meanwhile, companies like XYBERNAUT and VIA, which are currently offering commercially available products, are relatively unknown to the average person.

The concept of a wearable PC, even in today's information age, is considered a novelty. To most, it is just a prop from a TV show, but to the rest of us, it is the future of technology. I've spent many late nights on the Internet searching for the latest on the wearable market. I'll be honest, there really is not a whole lot out there. On the surface, you'll find links to recent news items, mostly fluff pieces, but the occasional piece of hard info will creep in. Beyond that, there are a few link pages and even a portal site which is still in the beta testing phase.

With a bit of persistent digging, I was fortunate to uncover an entire subculture devoted to wearing computers. A lot of it centers around colleges such as MIT, GEORGIA TECH and the UNIVERSITY OF OREGON. They produce some of the top minds in this growing field. These people spend countless waking moments wired while in the pursuit of a newer and better wearable. They are the pioneers of this movement. After college, most travel on to the up and coming companies in this field and soon their names will be known beyond just this obscure corner of the computing world.

While the mainstream arena is a relatively new venue for wearables, the industrial market has been booming for years. This is where companies like Via and Xybernaut have made their mark. From food service to insurance adjusters to construction, they are starting to become more common. The wearable PC is the perfect tool for for any job which requires access to a fully functioning PC outside of an office environment. In particular, they are being embraced by the medical industry. It allows doctors and paramedics to collect and reference patient information while in an ambulance or during hospital rounds. The US Government has also been using wearables for quite some time. Whether it is NASA using them for space travel, or the Military giving soldiers quick access to the latest intelligence on the battlefield, the industry would not be where it is today without the push of the government.

Beyond what currently exists, word on the street indicates we will be seeing a wearable from IBM sometime later this year. This device, which is being co-developed with Olympus, weighs about 1.5 pounds and is fully capable of running Windows 98 or Windows 2000. It contains a PC card slot plus a USB port for the addition of various accessories. The unit's display is a lightweight, head mounted monocle which is rumored to be the smallest yet. User input comes from a handheld mouse or IBM's ViaVoice voice recognition software. This prototype is using IBM's 340MB Microdrive for storage. In the next few months, I will be watching the Japanese market closely. IBM typically debuts its portables in Japan before they hit stores in the US.

HEWLETT PACKARD is attempting to break into the wearable market as well. HP has partnered with Swiss watchmaker Swatch Group to build an inventive Internet enabled watch. Information is sketchy at this point, however rumor has it this watch will have web surfing capabilities and the possibility of email as well. There is also talk of biometric user identification and GPS capabilities.

If a watch isn't enough for you, HP is wiring up clothing as well. Their latest addition to the wearable world is a jacket, dubbed "BlazerJet." This jacket comes as a blazer, vest or even a motorcycle jacket. All components such as the CPU and batteries are sewn into the lining and Linux is to be the operating system in use. A microphone is built in to accept voice commands and the display is handled by an HP Jornada Palm PC. This information comes courtesy of the HP Labs website. I should warn you, these are still in the development phase and may never actually make it to the retail market, so don't expect to find them at your local Geek Warehouse any time soon.

Aside from just full systems, there is an entire world of wearable peripherals out there. L3 SYSTEMS, for example, produces the WristPC Keyboard, a wrist mounted, backlit keyboard. Also, HANDYKEY CORPORATION makes the Twiddler, a combination of keyboard and mouse that weighs just four ounces and fits in the palm of your hand. I expect this area to grow rapidly as the demand for wearables increases.

I know I've mentioned quite a few products here. The goal of this was to catch everyone up on the state of wearables today. Since this is a new section to the magazine, I hope to mold this based on reader input and developing trends in the industry. So please give us your feedback. In my opinion wearables will be held back from mainstream acceptance until they are small enough to blend into your everyday attire. The concept of an unobtrusive head mount display, is close to reality. Once they stop invoking images of Borg technology, the public will accept wearables just as they have embraced cell phones and PDAs. Personally I can't wait, but only time will tell.

Rick Johnson can be reached via e-mail at

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