Geneva J. Anderson on Mon, 25 Oct 1999 13:43:12 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> report on Third International Symposium on Wearable Computers

Third International Symposium on Wearable Computers
18-19 October 1999
San Francisco, CA

Monday and Tuesday roughly 300 academicians, designers trade-reps and
others techno-inclined gathered in San Francisco to discuss the latest
issues in wearable computers and to test the latest and greatest wearable
gadgets. Coming one week after the highly publicized wearables fashion
show at Internet World, NY, the ISWC symposium (digest of papers is
available) covered various aspects of situational computing with emphasis
on enhancing the functionality and acceptance of wearables in society. 
Participants from at least 10 countries attended. 

30 minute presentations at varying level of technical detail addressed the
following issues--context awareness, systems and architectures, personal
applications, hardware components and usability testing.  The
presentations were geared towards peer review and attracting investment

The issue most frequently addressed was making wearables more context
sensitive so that they become proactive, constantly monitoring and
interpreting signs in the environment and feeding the user with critical
information so that he does not actively have to think about manipulating
the computer.  This is achieved through user-worn sensors (infrared,
accelerometers, temperature sensors)  whose information can then be
processed at varying levels to allow the user to perform context aware
tasks--indoor navigation, communication, etc. 

This trend is in sharp contrast to the first ISWC conference 3 years ago,
which emphasized military applications. Then, "wearable" meant able to get
information to a field worker or soldier who was using his hands, so
speech recognition, voice activation, etc. were important attributes. 

The latest generation of wearables are fashionable, sleek, ergonomic and
geared toward the merging of the consumer and electronics markets.  They
are either application specific--a smart badge for a conference that
allows one to track colleagues--or general purpose where the wearer is
engaged in an activity and the wearable is on and ideally stays on for the
day, like a cell phone. Nevermind that consistent and reliable performance
have not yet been achieved--it's coming. 

Most failures are currently clustered around the challenges of functioning
in a dynamically changing environment (the urban setting application)  and
glitches such as low batteries, software crashes. The point is that
various technologies are fusing---pda's are doing low-level information
processing; cell phones are coming in with communications; and wearables
are coming in with new key interfaces. Moore's law will continue to make
things smaller and lighter.  Then it's a matter of what can be done with a
computer once it can be comfortably integrated into clothing or with a
microphone the size of a tik-tak or with a speaker the size of a hearing
aid.  That's where research is vital. 

In high demand are consortia such as the M.I.T. Media Laboratory
(, recognized as a leading force in wearables. 
The Media Lab is associated with M.I.T. but 90% corporate-funded with over
100 sponsors such as Motorola, Nokia, British Telecom, etc., a trend which
is increasing in the U.S. as government funding declines. Due to the large
number of corporate sponsors (minimum buy-in rate $100,000 per year) the
lab claims it is relatively autonomous in setting its research agenda.
Staffed mainly by M.I.T.  masters and doctoral candidates, the Media Lab
does not develop products and is not a substitute for an in-house research
team. Rather it offers its sponsors the chance to participate
inexpensively in ongoing tech testing.  The Media Lab's ideas are shared
among all sponsors who have free-license to all patents, non-exclusive
from the date sponsorship begins. 

Media Lab researchers Brad Rhodes and Rich DeVal claim that wearables are
rapidly becoming proactive--allowing leveraging information about where
you are and what you're doing against the actual cognitive and physical
demands of manipulating the machine. Giving up privacy in order to gain
the benefits of this context-aware environment is an issue of contention.
According to the M.I.T. team, global computing can preserve privacy
especially in an environment where privacy is at a premium, a valuable
commodity. Starner. 

Tuesday's keynote speech addressed the IEEE 802.15 Working Group on WPANs
--relating to industry standards for computing devices that will allow
wireless to replace rf connections, subsequently taken up in a small
working group after the conference dismissed. 

Dick Urban, of DARPA, responsible for funding many wearable applications
of potential use to the military and intelligence communities, gave one of
the more interesting presentations.  Real video-clips from Kossovo mission
and simulations were shown demonstrating how the former-Yugoslavia had
been thoroughly 3-D mapped (no response to questions regarding the bombing
of the embassy), how communications system technology is being field-
tested in wearables, and how "smart clothes"  engineered with special
fibers can react to climate, provide camouflage by changing color and odor
and can perform monitoring and tracking functions.  It's a question of
further testing and refinement and for DARPA contained arenas like the
Balkans are excellent test grounds. 

Trade Show--a glimpse of what is likely to be productized in the near
future (1-2 years)  Universal agreement that the alienated geek/cyborg
sci-fi look is out while a gadgeted professional look is in.  Designers
are creating products geared towards lifestyle enhancement and specific
industrial applications. 

wearable penetration is increasing--how rapidly is rough to estimate as
most trade reps considered sales information proprietary.  >From what I
could gather, sales for head-mounted wearables $2,000-$5,000 range are
trickling in at a few units per day with companies like Xybernaut with
occasional clusters of 15 -20 unit orders. 

micro-optical eyeglass displays integrated into eyewear or available as
clip-ons of varying size with see around or see-through capability are
gradually hitting the market. Prices start at $250 and peak at about
$5,500.  These units do not block the user's eyes or face and do not
detract from the user's appearance

cell-phone innovation--adaptations to key pads that will allow keyboard
functioning and enable a range of data management.  an instant hit--a cell
phone sans the phone which operates via an index ring transmitter--you
just stick your finger in your ear and talk. strange vibrations as you
feel the sound travelling through your finger to your ear. 

"air typing" --optical sensors which detect finger movement will soon
compete with traditional keyboards.  the user straps a wireless device to
his/her wrist and optical sensors pick up movement. 

clothing innovation--jackets, vests, belts, bracelets all specially
designed to facilitate connectivity, some with additional heat sensing,
adaptive capabilities as well which allow them to blend into certain
environments. within the year, look for clothing which diffuses aroma. 

digest of papers: The Third International Symposium on Wearable Computers
available at:

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