Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (November 2007)

Wearable Computing Devices

By Bryan Bergeron

Wearable sensors, computers, and output devices are more common — and have been around longer — than you might think. Consider the cuff links and watch in the photo. Each cuff link is a functional magnetic compass. The watch not only shows the passage of time, but displays compass heading, altitude, temperature, ambient atmospheric pressure, and the pressure trend for weather prediction. The analog compasses are fairly accurate magnetic sensors, and the watch has considerable computing power assigned to interpreting onboard sensors.

If you’re into cardiovascular fitness, you may have a heart monitor watch that’s wirelessly linked to a chest-strap electrode. The system measures your heart’s electrical activity and calculates an equivalent pulse rate. The better monitors can download data wirelessly to a PC for plotting and analysis. Some manufacturers, such as Nike and Adidas, build heart rate sensors and/or sensor sockets into their athletic clothing. At the high-end of the wearable computing are military vision systems that combine ambient light images with night vision images overlaid with compass heading to provide soldiers with a better sense of surrounding threats.

The mainstream commercial and military personal sensing and wearable computing products provide a mere glimpse of the economic and functional potential of the underlying technologies. In research labs, prototype shirts laced with conductive threads enable the musically inclined to play a virtual keyboard by tapping on their shirt sleeves. Textiles with built-in LEDs enable wearers to create custom T-shirt displays — and then change them as easily as they switch songs on an iPod. Body area networks enable communications between disparate wearable devices, and haptic radar headbands can help the visually impaired avoid unseen objects.

What will it take for these and other wearable computing devices and technologies to move from the research bench to the market? The hurdles include:

• Identifying the best user interface for a given device and/or task.
• Creating fabrics with built-in sensors and displays that can withstand the rigors of regular use (recall George Jetson’s ‘indestructible suit’ that had to be dry cleaned).
• How to train wearable computer systems so that they perform as expected.
• Identifying applications that have value beyond the initial novelty.

This is where you come in. You may not have the facilities to create conductive fabrics with built-in computing elements, but if you have access to a PC, you can experiment with machine learning algorithms and other methods of training wearable computers. Furthermore, identifying application areas and optimum user interface designs are exercises in imagination that anyone can address. So, put on your thinking cap — and then share your result with other readers. I look forward to hearing from you. NV

• IEEE Pervasive Computing Journal, [url=http://www.computer.org/portal/site/pervasive]http://www.computer.org/portal/site/pervasive[/url]
• International Symposium on Wearable Computing, [url=http://www.iswc.net]http://www.iswc.net[/url]
• MIT Media Lab, [url=http://www.media.mit.edu/wearables]http://www.media.mit.edu/wearables[/url]
• Wearable Computer Lab, [url=http://www.wearable.ethz.ch]http://www.wearable.ethz.ch[/url]
• Wearables Central, [url=http://wearables.blu.org]http://wearables.blu.org[/url]