Wayne Piekarski of the University of South Australia shows off a device, that when used with a set of VR goggles, allows "construction at a distance," letting engineers virtually manipulate objects while standing at a work site.
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Maybe it’s wearable; but is it washable? Here at the sixth annual International Symposium on Wearable Computers, a gathering of the geekiest of geeks, you would expect to see scientists parading around covered in electronics, a sort of high-tech costume party. But the conversations were those that any stay-at-home mom or dad would understand: How many washes can this shirt withstand?

IF THE TERM “wearable computer” conjures of images of Star Trek’s Borg in your mind, it’s not your fault. It’s those ominous eye pieces, called “near-eye displays,” which are seemingly soldered to the user’s head in Borg-like fashion (really, they’re attached to glasses).

And true to form, at this week’s International Symposium on Wearable Computers, there was lively debate about topics like the best materials for embedding electronic circuitry into fabric. But don’t sell these super-geeks short; practicality is all the rage now. Companies with “boring” products like Symbol Technologies Inc.’s portable bar code scanners — the kind that scan and verify ticketholders as they enter Seattle’s Safeco Field, for example — get just as much attention as researchers toting electronic backpacks wearing virtual reality glasses.

It’s a simple numbers game. Attendance at the show was down this year. In fact, only five companies and research labs secured exhibit space. Some 250 researchers, tech workers, and students from as far away as Tokyo and New Zealand still made the trek, but that’s down from over 300 two years ago.

It’s not that interest in the far-flung field of wearables has waned, said conference organizer Mark Billinghurst. Several wearables companies are casualties of the technology stock bubble burst; other firms are reluctant to pay for field trips like the wearables conference right now.

So it’s up to wearables to find their way beyond very small niche industrial and military applications, and soon, and you could feel that in the hallways.

That’s not to say the hallways didn’t have their share of 21st century propeller hats gliding around. But most of the researchers insisted wearables are much more practical, and much more imminent, than the half-human, half-computer creations that wearables once were.

WARM AND FUZZY WEARABLES

How imminent? Last Christmas, Foster-Miller Inc., Polartec and Land’s End went retail with heated blankets made of 4 percent metallic fiber, the kind developed for embedding circuitry into clothing. The result — a cozy electric blanket without any clunky, uncomfortable electric wires.

“My wife would take it and wrap it around herself watching TV,” said Foster-Miller business development manager Douglas Thomson. “You wouldn’t do that with a regular electric blanket.”

Thomson said 17,000 blankets were sold at $200 a pop last holiday season, a far cry from the current wearables market.

Thomson’s firm is eyeing many such simple, sellable consumer products that leverage what his company has learned about weaving electronics into fabrics. In hip clubs, disco dancers like putting flashing lights onto their blouses these days. Thomson is developing women’s clothing with lights embedded into the fabric, for the ultimate fashion statement.

“Light up is big right now,” he said. Women will already pay $50 for a top; he figures they’ll pay $10 more to wear a top with computerized lights. And as for the garment’s washability?

“The textile people tell me as long as it can take four washes, that’s fine. After that, (women) want to wear something else,” he said.

Infineon Technologies AG is hoping wearable music players will also be a fashion forward statement. At this year’s wearables fashion show, the firm showed off its MP3 jacket. The circuitry is woven right into the garment, with play and stop buttons lining the arm, and a walkman-style single ear piece dangling from the collar. Flash memory cards with new songs are tucked into a side pocket. Announced in April, the jacket is probably two years away from retail, said spokesperson Wendy Lewis.

WHERE’S THE REAL REVOLUTION?

But a jacket that plays a few digital tunes is a far cry from the always-at-your-fingertips full-fledged computer that the wearables crowd has been working toward. Sitting in the audience this week were researchers holding hobby-built, custom computers in bags slung around their backs, tethered to a “near-eye” monitor clipped to their glasses. Inside that tiny screen, which hovers barely two inches from the eye, is what looks like a full-fledged computer monitor. An optical illusion, not unlike the feeling one gets looking inside a Kaleidoscope, convinces the user the screen is much bigger than it is. Since only one eye is occupied, the other eye can be used to observe the outside world, or engage in conversations. In normal circumstances, talking to someone while looking through a computer screen might be considered rude. But here, it’s considered normal.

Even the most optimistic in this crowd don’t think an eye-mounted computer screen will ever be really normal, so this group is hard at work trying to decide what the term wearable computer really means. The word itself, admits Billinghurst, might be a detriment to the field.

“Wearables is a loaded term,” he said. “It conjures up images of cyborgs.”

SOLAR-POWERED JACKETS

Much of the focus so far has been on embedding computer circuitry in clothing, creating a research area that is sometimes called electronic textiles. But Paul Lukowicz, a research assistant at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, argues that even cell phones and personal data assistants could be considered wearable computers. He figures some day those devices will share common components like displays, power sources, and input mechanisms, rather than the current clunky system that sees tech-laden workers burdened with multiple, bulky electronics.

“You’ll just have a card, for example, that you stick in your pocket, and that will be your cell phone, or PDA. They will then configure themselves into a system with a single display, say on your watch,” he said.

Impossible-to-spot solar panels will be embedded in clothes some day to power the devices, so there are no more electricity shortages.

ALWAYS ON, ALWAYS READY

To others, the most critical component of wearable computers is that they are always on, and always ready with the information a user needs.

“Even a Palm, you have to stop what you are doing and turn it on,” Billinghurst said.

A better solution is a computer that offers information to you precisely when you need it, but doesn’t take all your attention to get it, a concept sometimes called “pervasive computing.”

“Desktop computers are designed to get all your attention,” Billinghurst said, requiring what he called an “explicit interface.” One way to think about wearable computers, he said, was their ability to monitor what the user is doing and just be helpful when appropriate, something he called an “implicit interface.”

If such an immersive computing experience starts to sound a little like far-flung virtual reality, it is. Wearable computer researchers have always been allied with virtual reality developers, since the two technologies often piggy-back on each other. But a slightly newer term, augmented reality, seemed to be carrying the day at this year’s conference.

AUGMENTED REALITY

Virtual reality immerses the user in a brand new world. Augmented reality has a much humbler objective; it simply seeks to overlay additional information on the reality the user already sees. Microvision Inc.’s personal display system, known as micro-optical scanning, is a good example. The firm’s $12,000 headset offers a see-through image which appears to hover a few feet in front of the user, but doesn’t obstruct the user’s view — similar to heads-up displays offered in some high-end cars today. Technicians repairing airplanes, for example, can call up schematics and effectively overlay them precisely on the mechanical systems they are fixing. It eliminates tedious back-and-forth, look at the manual, look at the system, look back at the manual process which mechanics the world over are used to.

“It’s called ‘remoting the display,’” said Microvision’s Matt Nichols. “A completely portable display ... can really increase job performance.”

Augmented reality will have other applications, too, he said. The 2004 Olympics committee has considered similar technology for Athens tourists. Visitors who look at ancient ruins through such a display will see them virtually restored to their original architecture.

In fact, these kinds of virtual displays may ultimately be the first way most consumers feel the impact of wearable computer research. Microvision is one of several companies talking to cell phone manufacturers about incorporating that kind of projection display in a cell phone screen. Micro-optical displays have been tested with PDA devices, too, Billinghurst said.

That would provide a ready solution to the problem of screen size that phone makers face as they try to convince consumers to use mobile devices to access the Internet, watch movies, and perform other visual-intensive operations. Microvision has also talked to car manufacturers about using such displays as part of entertainment systems in cars.

At that point, it could hardly be called a wearable computer any more. But it would also mean wearable computers had moved far beyond their current niche applications, and that would suit Billinghurst just fine.

“The definition of wearables is really very broad,” he said. “Some of the techniques being used are very far out, but some really will be used in the near term.”

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