Wearable computer

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A wearable computer is a small portable computer that is designed to be worn on the body during use. In this wearable computers differ from PDAs, which are designed for hand-held use, although the distinction can sometimes be a blurry one. Wearable computers are usually either integrated into the user's clothing or can be attached to the body through some other means, like a wristband. They may also be integrated into everyday objects that are constantly worn on the body, like a wrist watch or a hands-free cell phone.

Wearable computing is an active topic of research, with areas of study including user interface design, augmented reality, pattern recognition, use of wearables for specific applications or disabilities, electronic textiles and fashion design. Many issues are common to the wearables, mobile computing and ubiquitous computing research communities, including power management and heat dissipation, software architectures, wireless and personal area networks and sensor networks.

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Wristwatch videoconferencing system running GNU Linux, later featured in Linux Journal and presented at ISSCC2000

Wearable computers are especially useful for applications that require computational support while the user's hands, voice, eyes or attention are activly engaged with the physical environment. Such applications include presentation of information to mechanics, military or paramilitary personnel, pathfinding for the blind, realtime translation from one spoken language to another, and continuous medical monitoring. Because of this focus on minimal impact, the largest differences between wearable and other mobile computing platforms are the human-computer interface. Depending on the application, the primary input to a wearable might be a chording keyboard, gesture, speech recognition or even just passive sensors (context awareness). Output might be presented via speech, audio tones, a head-mounted display or haptic output. Output can also be combined with the physical world through a visual or audio augmented reality interface.

The commercialization of general-purpose wearable computers, as led by companies such as Xybernaut, CDI and ViA Inc, has thus far met with limited success. Publicly-traded Xybernaut has forged alliances with companies such as IBM and Sony in order to make wearable computing widely available, but is now facing financial difficulties. In 1998 Seiko marketed the Ruputer, a computer in a (fairly large) wristwatch, to mediocre returns. In 2001 IBM developed and publicly displayed two prototypes for a wristwatch computer running Linux, but the product never came to market. In 2002 Fossil announced the Fossil WristPDA, which ran the PalmOS. Its release date was set for summer of 2003, but was delayed several times and was finally made available on January 5, 2005.

Wearable computing devices have fared far better when designed and sold for a particular application. The two most ubiquitous examples would be portable MP3 players and cell phones (especially cell phones with wireless microphone attachments). Such devices look far different from the traditional cyborg image of wearable computers, but in fact these devices are becoming more powerful and more wearable all the time.



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Evolution of Steve Mann's WearComp wearable computer from backpack based systems of the late 1970s and early 1980s to his current covert systems.

Depending on how broadly one defines both wearable and computer, the first wearable computer could be as early as the 1500s with the invention of the pocket watch or even the 1200s with the invention of eyeglasses. The first device that would fit the modern-day image of a wearable computer was constructed in 1961 by the mathematician Edward O. Thorp, better known as the inventer of the theory of card-counting for blackjack, and Claude E. Shannon, who is best known as "the father of information theory." The system was a concealed cigarette-pack sized analog computer designed to predict roulette wheels. A data-taker would use microswitches hidden in his shoes to indicate the speed of the roulette wheel, and the computer would indicate an octant to bet on by sending musical tones via radio to a miniature speaker hidden in a collaborators ear canal. The system was successfully tested in Las Vegas in June 1961, but hardware issues with the speaker wires prevented them from using it beyond their test runs. Their wearable was kept secret until it was was first mentioned in Thorp's book Beat the Dealer (revised ed.) in 1966 and later published in detail in 1969. The 1970s saw rise to similar roulette-prediction wearable computers using next-generation technology, in particular a group known as Eudaemonic Enterprises that used a CMOS 6502 microprocessor with 5K RAM to create a shoe-computer with inductive radio communications between a data-taker and better (Bass 1985).

Besides gambling aids, early wearable applications included two notable systems designed to help the disabled. In 1967, Hubert Upton developed an analogue wearable computer that included an eyeglass-mounted display to aid lip reading. Using high and low-pass filters, the system would determine if a spoken phoneme was a fricative, stop consonant, voiced-fricative, voiced stop consanant, or simply voiced. An LED mounted on ordinary eyeglasses illuminated to indicate the phoneme type. The LEDs were positioned to enable a simple form of augmented reality; for example, when a phoneme was voiced the LED at the bottom of the glass illuminated, making it seem as if the speaker's throat was glowing (Upton 1968). Another early wearable system was a camera-to-tactile vest for the blind, published by C.C. Collins in 1977, that converted images into a 1024-point, 10-inch square tactile grid on a vest (Collins 1977). On the consumer end, 1977 also saw the introduction of the HP-01 algebraic calculator watch by Hewlett-Packard (Marion 1977).

The 1980s saw the rise of more general-purpose wearable computers. In 1981 Steve Mann designed and built a backpack-mounted 6502-based computer to control flash-bulbs, cameras and other photographic systems. The display was a camera viewfinder CRT attached to a helmet, giving 40-column text. Input was from seven microswitches built into the handle of a flash-lamp, and the entire system (including flash-lamps) was powered by lead-acid batteries. Mann went on to be an early and active researcher in the wearables field, especially known for his 1994 creation of the Wearable Wireless Webcam (Mann 1997). Though perhaps not technically "wearable," in 1986 Steve Roberts built Winnebiko-II, a recumbent bicycle with on-board computer and chording keyboard Winnebiko II was the first of Steve Roberts' forays into nomadic computing that allowed him to type while riding (Microship).

In 1989 Reflection Technology marketed the Private Eye head-mounted display, which scanned a vertical array of LEDs across the visual field using a vibrating mirror. The display (designated the "P4") was a 720 x 280 pixel monochrome (red) monitor in a 3.5" X 1.5" X 1.25" package. Screen size was 1.25" on the diagonal, but the image appeared to be a 15" display at 18" away. This display gave rise to several hobbyist and research wearables, including Gerald "Chip" Maguire's IBM / Columbia University Student Electronic Notebook (Bade 1990), Doug Platt's Hip-PC and Carnegie Mellon University's VuMan 1 (wearablegroup.org) in 1991. The Student Electronic Notebook consisted of the Private Eye, Toshiba diskless AIX notebook computers (prototypes) and a stylus based input system plus virtual keyboard, and used direct sequence spread spectrum radio links to provide all the usual TCP/IP based services, including NFS mounted file systems and X windows, all running in the Andrew Project environment. The Hip-PC included an Agenda palmtop used as a chording keyboard attached to the belt and a 1.44 megabyte floppy drive. Later versions incorporated additional equipment from Park Engineering. The system debuted at "The Lap and Palmtop Expo" on April 16th, 1991. VuMan 1 was developed as part of a Summer-term course at |Carnegie Mellon's Engineering Design Research Center, and was intended for viewing house blueprints. Input was through a three-button unit worn on the belt, and output was through Reflection Tech's Private Eye. The CPU was an 8 MHz 80188 processor with 0.5 MB ROM. The project later turned into a full research project in wearable computing that remains strong today.

In 1993 the Private Eye was used in Thad Starner's wearable, based on Doug Platt's system and built from a kit from Park Enterprises, a Private Eye display, and the Twiddler chording keyboard made by Handykey. Many iterations later this system became the MIT "Tin Lizzy" wearable computer design, and Starner went on to become one of the founders of MIT's wearable computing project. 1993 also saw Columbia University's augmented-reality system known as KARMA: Knowledge-based Augmented Reality for Maintenance Assistance. Users would wear a Private Eye display over one eye, giving an overlay effect when the real world was viewed with both eyes open. KARMA would overlay wireframe schematics and maintenance instructions on top of whatever was being repaired. For example, graphical wireframes on top of a laser printer would explain how to change the paper tray. The system used sensors attached to objects in the physical world to determine their locations, and the entire system ran tethered from a desktop computer (Feiner 1993).

In 1994 Edgar Matias and Mike Ruicci of the University of Toronto, debuted the "wrist computer." Their system presented an alternative approach to the emerging head-up display plus chord keyboard wearable. The system was built from a modified HP 95LX palmtop computer and a Half-QWERTY one-handed keyboard. With the keyboard and display modules strapped to the operator's forearms, text could be entered by bringing the wrists together and typing (Matias 1994, 1996). The system debuted at ACM's Computer-Human Interaction 1994 conference in Boston, and is now being productized under the name "half keyboard". The same technology was used by IBM researchers to create the half-keyboard "belt computer." Also in 1994, Mik Lamming and Mike Flynnat Xerox EuroPARC demonstrated the Forget-Me-Not, a wearable device that would record interactions with people and devices and store this information in a database for later query (Lamming, 1994). It interacted via wireless transmitters in rooms and with equipment in the area to remember who was there, who was being talked to on the telephone, and what objects were in the room, allowing queries like "Who came by my office while I was on the phone to Mark?" As with the Toronto system, Forget-Me-Not was not based on a head-mounted display.

Also in 1994, DARPA started the Smart Modules Program to develop a modular, humionic approach to wearable and carryable computers, with the goal of producing a variety of products including computers, radios, navigation systems and human-computer interfaces that have both military and commercial use. In July 1996 DARPA went on to host the "Wearables in 2005" workshop, bringing together industrial, university and military visionaries to work on the common theme of delivering computing to the individual (DARPA 1996). A follow-up conference was hosted by Boeing in August 1996, where plans were finalized to create a new academic conference on wearable computing. In October 1997, Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, and Georgia Tech co-hosted the IEEE International Symposium on Wearables Computers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The symposium was a full academic conference with published proceedings and papers ranging from sensors and new hardware to new applications for wearable computers, with 382 people registered for the event. The conference continues to be the primary academic conference for wearable computing today.

See also


  • Edward O. Thorp, The invention of the first wearable computer (http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/freeabs_all.jsp?isnumber=15725&arnumber=729523&count=30&index=1), in The Second International Symposium on Wearable Computers: Digest of Papers, IEEE Computer Society, 1998, pp. 4-8.
  • Edward O. Thorp, Beat the Dealer, 2nd Edition, Vintage, New York, 1966. ISBN 0394703103
  • Edward O. Thorp, "Optimal gambling systems for favorable game,." Review of the International Statistical Institute, V. 37:3, 1969, pp. 273-293.
  • T.A. Bass, The Eudaemonic Pie, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1985.
  • Hubert Upton, "Wearable Eyeglass Speechreading Aid," American Annals of the Deaf, V113, 2 March 1968, pp. 222-229. (previously presented at Conference on Speech-Analyzing Aids for the Deaf, June 14-17, 1967.
  • C.C. Collins, L.A. Scadden, and A.B. Alden, "Mobile Studies whith a Tactile Imaging Device," Fourth Conference on Systems & Devices For The Disabled, June 1-3, 1977, Seatle WA.
  • Andre F. Marion, Edward A. Heinsen, Robert Chin, and Bennie E. Helmso, wrist instrument Opens New Dimension in Personal Information."Wrist instrument opens new dimension in personal information (http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/abouthp/histnfacts/museum/personalsystems/0022/other/0022hpjournal.pdf)", Hewlett-Packard Journal, December 1977. See also HP-01 wrist instrument, 1977 (http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/abouthp/histnfacts/museum/personalsystems/0022/index.html)
  • Steve Mann, "An historical account of the 'WearComp' and 'WearCam' inventions developed for applications in 'Personal Imaging,'" in The First International Symposium on Wearable Computers: Digest of Papers, IEEE Computer Society, 1997, pp. 66-73.
  • [The Winnebiko II and Maggie (http://www.microship.com/bike/winnebiko2/index.html)]
  • J. Peter Bade, G.Q. Maguire Jr., and David F. Bantz, The IBM/Columbia Student Electronic Notebook Project, IBM, T. J. Watson Research Lab., Yorktown Heights, NY, 29 June 1990. (The work was first shown at the DARPA Workshop on Personal Computer Systems, Washington, D.C., 18 January 1990.)
  • [[1] (http://www.wearablegroup.org/)]
  • Lizzy: MIT's Wearable Computer Design 2.0.5 (http://www.media.mit.edu/wearables/lizzy/lizzy/)
  • Steve Feiner, Bruce MacIntyre, and Doree Seligmann, "Knowledge-based augmented reality," in Communications of the ACM, 36(7), July 1993, 52-62. See also the KARMA webpage (http://www1.cs.columbia.edu/graphics/projects/karma/karma.html).
  • Edgar Matias, I. Scott MacKenzie, and William Buxton, "Half-QWERTY: Typing with one hand using your two-handed skills," Companion of the CHI '94 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, 1994, pp. 51-52.
  • Edgar Matias, I.Scott MacKenzie and William Buxton, "A Wearable Computer for Use in Microgravity Space and Other Non-Desktop Environments," Companion of the CHI '96 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, 1996, pp. 69-70.
  • E.C. Urban, Kathleen Griggs, Dick Martin, Dan Siewiorek and Tom Blackadar, Proceedings of Wearables in 2005 (http://www.darpa.mil/MTO/Displays/Wear2005/), Arlington, VA, July 18-19, 1996.
  • Mik Lamming and Mike Flynn, "'Forget-me-not' Intimate Computing in Support of Human Memory" (http://www.lamming.com/mik/Papers/fmn.pdf) in Proceedings FRIEND21 Symposium on Next Generation Human Interfaces, 1994.

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