Windows into the Imagination

Friday, June 10, 2011

Science Fact or Fiction: Wearable Computers

Imagine this…you arrive at a party, all decked out to the nines. It's an important event. A woman comes up to you, smiles. "Hello, Frank. Do you remember me?" Unfortunately, you don't because you have a memory like a sieve and are about to fumble through, faking an acquaintance you don't recall, hoping she'll drop some clues before you make a fool of yourself. Her name would be nice.
A soft voice whispers in your ear. "Her name is Amelia Glass." A smile appears on your face and you say warmly, "Amelia, of course. How could I forget?" The soft voice proceeds to give you a brief description of your last meeting, plus, on request, a list of her likes and dislikes, habits, people you both know…
Who is this guardian angel whispering in your ear?
Or how about this one…
Instead of carrying around a clunky pad or squinting at the pint-sized text on your cell phone, you draw an "@" symbol in the air and a holographic screen pops up so that you can pick up your email anytime, anywhere.
Or…
Wandering down the grocery aisle and according to personal specifications, a touch on any product will tell you if it's organic, has any trans fat, the number of calories per serving, is gluten or peanut free, or any information you may be interested in.
Welcome to the world of wearable computers.
To date, personal computers haven't been all that personal. They usually sit on a desk, interacting with their owners only when they sit down in front of the keyboard. With laptops, net books, tablet computers, ebook readers and iphones, they've become far more mobile.
But at the MIT Wearable Computing Labs, they believe that a computer should be worn, as easily as slipping on a pair of glasses or an article of clothing or jewelry and interact with the wearer based on the context of the situation. Using HUDs, unobtrusive input devices and other situational sensing tools, the wearable computer acts as an intelligent assistant, bringing up relevant information when and where you need it without a long, exhaustive search at a computer terminal or taking out your i-devices.
How close is this wearable informational world?
Just a touch away…
First up is the Twiddler. It's an integrated mouse and full-function ergonomic keyboard that fits in the palm of your hand, left or right. The device does require a little bit of learning and getting used to, but after an hour, you can be typing quite easily.
Cell phone makers have released phones with projectors integrated in them. The Samsung Show W7900 (only available in Korea) has a built-in projector using Texas Instruments DLP Pico chipset. It also has a 3.2-inch touch screen and a 5MP camera with an LED flash. This year, it is now available as the Samsung Beam in North America, a smartphone running Android 2.1 and is slimmer, at just 11.98 millimeters thick. AT&T has released its LG eXpo with an optional snap-on "pico projector" using the same TI technology.
That is what is available now. What about the future?
Pranav Mistry, a student at MIT, is developing a device that is currently worn on a lanyard around his neck, and with colored caps on his fingers. With gestures as simple as forming a picture frame, he can tell a camera to snap a photo. Drawing a circle on his left wrist, the face of a watch pops up on his hand. He can project a phone pad on his palm and dial and call a number without removing his cell phone from his pocket. Reading a newspaper, information is pulled up from the internet related to the article he is reading.
"It turns any surface into an interactive display screen. The wearer can summon virtual gadgets and internet data at will, then dispel them like smoke when they’re done." 1
The research is aimed at creating a digital "sixth sense" for human beings.
Remember the supermarket scenario? Mistry's team has developed a ring that uses infrared signals that communicate with supermarket smart shelves that give you information about products.
So maybe the guardian angel isn't that farfetched after all…


Footnotes:

 1  TED: MIT Students Turn Internet Into a Sixth Human Sense, by Kim Zetter

Other references:

Twiddler 2

Samsung Show W7900

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