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Wearable Wear

Wearable computing in jewelry?

By Neil Kleinman
May 2001, issue 39

The mention of wearable computers conjures images of devices strapped to the wrist, battery packs strapped to a belt and a display built into eyeglasses. Along with this complement of devices are cables that turn a person into a walking network. Computers that can be worn are thus not the same as computers in what we wear. Researchers at IBM Laboratories have begun to envision computing devices that can be embedded in jewelry items that are worn every day.

This vision includes a wireless Personal Area Network (PAN) of computing devices distributed around the body in jewelry items including watches, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and rings. Imagine speakers embedded in earrings and a microphone hidden in a pendant or ring. A watch or bracelet would contain a computing device and small display. Individual devices will communicate via tiny, low power radio frequency devices in a manner similar to Bluetooth, but be limited to communication within an area of just a few feet.

This futuristic look at wearable computing addresses what will emerge as a new class of personal-centric computing applications as opposed to the present enterprise-centric applications that are the focus of today's mobile computing applications. Yes, it's important to get alerts and email from business colleagues, and you do want to manage your calendar and address book, but that's not personalized computing. Personal-centric applications deal with lifestyle issues such as entertainment, voice communication, and location-based information.

According to Michael Karasick, Chief Technology Officer for IBM's Pervasive Computing Division, "Embedded devices are likely to be application appliances that won't need a start button and may not require a display." Supporting infrastructure for personal-centric applications will need to activate devices that will always be on, but be in a sleep mode.

Let's look at some examples of possible personal-centric applications. A family goes on vacation at a resort and each member of the family wears a computing device in a bracelet, watch or pendant. Parents will be able to check the location of their children and even send messages regarding when and where to meet for meals. Another example could involve use of wearable computer on the golf course to calculate and display distance from a ball to the hole and possibly indicate the appropriate club to use based a person's hitting profile or handicap. These two locations are ones where the user is not overly anxious to read email or get alerts from co-workers.

Location awareness is critical for personal-centric applications. Imagine being on a trip and using a wearable computer that is preprogrammed to automatically check at mealtimes for nearby restaurants serving your favorite foods. This application can be accomplished with a handheld computer, but it is made effective when information arrives automatically via an embedded-jewelry device thus eliminating the need to pull a handheld device from your pocket or purse.

Embedded-jewelry devices can also be used for those enterprise-centric applications where it would be inconvenient to access a cellular phone, pager or handheld computer. In these instances the flash of a ring and a tiny buzz may serve as an alert to return a call or access email. A quick glance at the watch or bracelet display will be all that a user needs to do to get alerts, and people nearby (such as in a meeting) will not be disturbed or offended.

At this point it's fair to ask if embedded jewelry computing can really happen. Some of the elements necessary for embedded computing already exist such as mini-chips for global positioning (GPS) and tiny batteries used in microphones. Organic display components (OLEDs) offer promise of low cost, low power displays that won't require backlighting. A watch-based computer running a version of the LINUX operating system has already been demonstrated at IBM Watson Research. An "ensemble" of computer-embedded jewelry will allow for use of multiple batteries and only devices needed for an application will have to "wake up" and draw extra power. IBM has incorporated its Trackpoint technology into a ring so that menus (presumably on a watch, bracelet or eyeglass display) can be scrolled optically or via a series of clicks.

Eyeglass displays for heads-up viewing are likely to be a part of the ensemble of independent wearable devices. An LCD display with only a 0.3" diagonal can be used to project on the inside of the eyeglass lens. In a possible futuristic application, eyeglasses could also contain an imaging device so that wearable computing can be used to recognize and identify people or objects.

This next generation of embedded-jewelry wearable computers will pack a lot of technology into very small packages. Perhaps a completely Wearable Real-time Information System Technology (WRIST) operating system will evolve. But, as summed up by Cameron Miner, a Researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center, "it will be style more than technology that will dictate the course of embedded-jewelry computing." - Neil Kleinman can be reached via e-mail at

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