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Wearable computers: No longer science fiction

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Wearable computers: No longer science fiction

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By using devices carried on the body, wearable computers allow the exploration of the principles of pervasive computing immediately instead of waiting for the deployment of the ubiquitous infrastructure often associated with the field. However, wearable computers are often misunderstood, both in their research and application. I've been wearing a computer as part of my daily life since 1993, and in this article, I explore the attributes that make wearable computers a unique approach to ubiquitous computing and discuss current topics in the wearable computing field.
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86
PERVASIVE
computing
1536-1268/02/$17.00 © 2002 IEEE
O
ne problem with developing per-
vasive computing systems is mak-
ing them, well, pervasive. To deploy
computers and networking services
everywhere that users might travel
requires prohibitive expenses in infra-
structure and maintenance. However,
there is an alternative: wearable com-
puters. By carrying their own infra-
structure, users are guaranteed a cer-
tain level of service wherever they go.
But what should a wearable computer
contain? What is the market for such a
device, and when will wearable com-
puting products become profitable?
The answers to these questions vary
widely depending on if you ask the pub-
lic, commercial vendors, or academics.
Often the public equates wearable com-
puters with head-up displays, body-car-
ried computers, and speech or one-
handed keyboard interfaces. Academics
often use the term to refer to a desirable
set of features such as context aware-
ness, proactivity, and hands-limited or
hands-free use that are somewhat inde-
pendent of the hardware implementa-
tion, whereas market forecasters might
define a wearable computer as loosely
as any computing device worn on the
body. We will explore these differences
in perspective in future installments of
this column, but for this first issue, I will
don the mantel of an entrepreneur and
examine wearable computing from the
commercial side.
RUMBLINGS OF A NEW
INDUSTRY
Market forecasters predict that some
form of wearable computing will
become pervasive in the next several
years, but there still is no consensus
about the form of these devices or their
level of functionality. A 1999 Interna-
tional Data Corporation study esti-
mated a US $600 million market for a
“fully functional PC that a person could
wear as a peripheral to their clothing”
by 2003.
1
A recent Gartner Group study
predicted that by 2007, 60 percent of
the European Union and US population
aged 15 to 50 will carry or wear a com-
puting and communications device at
least six hours a day.
2
By 2010, Gartner
predicts that this number will grow to
over 75 percent. Bear Stearns and
Jupiter Communications forecast that
computing devices worn on the body
and equipped with Internet access will
exceed 100 million units sold by 2003.
3
Bear Stearns further reports that the
market for point-to-point purchases
made on such devices is expected to
reach US $1 trillion by 2003.
Although these projections are often
difficult to compare and could be
affected by the 2001 market downturn,
they hint of something afoot. The ques-
tion is, what? Pen computing was in a
similar state of flux in the early 1990s.
Advocates, market analysts, and the
press generated a lot of excitement, but
almost five years elapsed before the
introduction of the highly successful,
horizontally positioned Palm Pilot.
Many clues hinted where the markets
would develop before Palm’s introduc-
tion, though. Wearable computing is still
waiting for a consumer-oriented hori-
zontal platform, but several successful
companies offer similar clues to potential
markets and bear closer examination.
THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
One example of a successful early
wearable computer is the portable dig-
ital music player, which sold over 3 mil-
lion units in 2000.
4
Some might ques-
Wearable Computers:
No Longer Science Fiction
Thad E. Starner, Georgia Institute of Technology
Editor: Thad E. Starner Georgia Institute of Technology thad@cc.gatech.edu
Wearable Computing
By using devices carried on the body, wearable computers allow the exploration of the
principles of pervasive computing immediately instead of waiting for the deployment of the
ubiquitous infrastructure often associated with the field. However, wearable computers are
often misunderstood, both in their research and application. I’ve been wearing a computer
as part of my daily life since 1993, and in this column, I’ll explore the attributes that make
wearable computers a unique approach to ubiquitous computing and discuss current topics
in the wearable computing field. If you’d like to contribute a short essay or idea, please con-
tact me at thad@cc.gatech.edu. Thad E. Starner
EDITORS INTRO
tion whether we should think of these
players as wearable computers, but
they
are designed for mobility, and they
contain many appropriate components:
a processor, mass storage (such as flash
or hard disk), earphones, and primitive
displays and keyboards.
Although portable MP3 players are
commonly viewed as a replacement for
the portable compact disk player, com-
panies began exploiting the computa-
tional aspects of these players to use
them for museum tour guides or audio
books. Computer enthusiasts have been
known to rewrite an MP3 players
interface software to upload and down-
load any type of data, effectively turn-
ing the device into the equivalent of a
large floppy disk.
More recently, these devices are merg-
ing with PDAs and cell phones to create
a wide variety of products. IDC expects
sales of portable devices with digital
audio playback capability to grow to 15
million units by 2005.
4
In a sense, these
devices demonstrate a future market in
wearable computers as flexible con-
sumer electronics devices. Imagine a
processor and hard disk encased in a
pocket-sized base unit. The software
downloaded to the device and the
peripherals added to it would then deter-
mine the machines functionality. In such
a way, a wearable might morph between
a portable music player, cell phone, or
Web browser as the user desires.
Another ongoing success story is Sym-
bol, which has sold approximately
100,000 units from its WSS 1000 line of
wearable computers (see Figure 1).
Depending on configuration, the WSS
1000 series costs between US $3,500 and
$5,000 and consists of a wrist-mounted
wearable computer that features a laser
barcode scanner encapsulated in a ring
worn on a finger. This device frees both
hands so that the user can perform tasks
while scanning barcodes. They are often
used in warehouse receiving and picking,
shelf inventory, point-of-sale checkout,
package tracking, baggage handling, and
parts assembly. Scanning a package or
item with the ring scanner is part of the
motion made when reaching for a pack-
age. Because the user no longer has to
fumble with a desk-tethered scanner,
these devices increase the speed at which
the user can manipulate packages and
decrease the overall strain on the users
body. Symbols success did not come
overnight; it spent over US $5 million to
develop this new class of device and was
surprised repeatedly by human factors
and usage problems during initial test-
ing. However, the resulting product is a
notable success, providing the company
with a unique differentiator and prof-
itable new markets.
Pittsburgh-based Vocollect also
focuses on package manipulationin
particular, the warehouse-picking prob-
lem. In this scenario, a customer places
an order consisting of several different
items stored in a suppliers warehouse.
The order transmits from the ware-
houses computer to an employees
wearable computer. In turn, each item
and its location are spoken to the
employee through a pair of headphones.
The employee can control how this list
is announced through feedback via
speech recognition and can also report
inventory errors as they occur. The
employee accumulates the customers
order from the warehouses shelves and
ships it. This audio-only interface also
frees the employee to manipulate pack-
ages with both hands, whereas a pen-
based system would be considerably
more awkward (see Figure 2). As of
December 2000, Vocollect had approx-
imately 15,000 users and revenues
between US $10 and $25 million.
Wearable computers are also suc-
cessful as mobile medical aids. Modern
heart pacemakers use a computer and
sensor package that adjusts the heart
rate based on the users level of exer-
tion. Some pacemakers even include
screen output so that a patient can
monitor his or her units effectiveness.
Using a wireless short-range network,
deep brain stimulators are programmed
to provide the proper signals to help
control tremor in Parkinsons patients.
More commonly, companies such as
Fitsense and BodyMedia now sell wear-
able computers that help monitor a
users health during exercise or every-
day life.
W
earable computer markets are
developing in inspection, repair,
and maintenance. Carnegie Mellon
University has shown that major time
JANUARYMARCH 2002
PERVASIVE
computing
87
Figure 1. Symbol’s WSS 1000 series wrist-
mounted wearable computer with ring
scanner.
Figure 2. Vocollect’s audio-based
wearable computer.
and cost savings occur when using
wearable computers instead of paper
manuals to maintain equipment and
infrastructure. Charmed Technology,
with whom I am affiliated, provides
open hardware and software wearable
platforms that let corporate research
and development agencies customize
wearable computers to new tasks rap-
idly. Wearable manufacturers such as
Via and Xybernaut support case stud-
ies with industrial partners to prove the
value of wearable computers for such
tasks. For example, Via recently com-
pleted a study with McDonalds restau-
rants, showing how its wearable com-
puters can help reduce customer wait
time and improve order accuracy.
Undoubtedly, between the consumer
and industrial possibilities, wearable
computers will become a larger market
force in the near future. However, given
that the first wearable computers were
made in the 1960s, why has it taken so
long to reach this stage? What is so hard
about making a wearable computer?
What are the next breakthroughs, and
what does academia see in these de-
vices? In each installment of this col-
umn, we will examine a different wear-
able computing issue in an attempt to
answer these questions and demon-
strate this new fields richness.
REFERENCES
1. C. Arrington, Alternative Computing De-
vices Report Series: Wearable Computing,
tech. report #W19020, Intl Data Corp.,
Framingham, Mass., 1999.
2. J. Fenn and A. Linden, Wearing IT Out: The
Growth of the Wireless, Wearable World,
tech. report SPA-13-2057, Gartner, Stamford,
Conn., 2001.
3. J. Neff and W. Bean, iAppliances, Bear
Stearns, New York, 2000.
4. S. Kevorkian and B. Ma, MP3 Players and
More: Forecast and Analysis of the World-
wide Compressed Audio Player Market,
2000-2005, tech. report #W24064, Intl
Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., 2001.
88
PERVASIVE
computing
http://computer.org/pervasive
APPLICATIONS EDUCATION STANDARDS WEARABLE COMPUTING
WEARABLE COMPUTING
Thad E. Starner is an assistant professor of com-
puting at the Georgia Institute of Technology,
where he directs the Contextual Computing
Group in the Institutes College of Computing. His
research interests include wearable computing,
augmented reality, machine and human vision,
intelligent agents, and gesture recognition. He
received four degrees, including his PhD, from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology while work-
ing with the MIT Media Laboratory. He also
cofounded the IEEE International Symposium on
Wearable Computers and is a cofounder of
Charmed Technology. Contact him at the Col-
lege of Computing, Georgia Tech., Atlanta, GA
30332-0280; thad@cc.gatech.edu.
IEEE International Symposium on
Wearable Computers:
http://iswc.gatech.edu
Charmed Technologys wearable
computers for research and development:
www.charmed.com
Via wearable computers:
www.flexipc.com
Xybernaut wearable computers:
www.xybernaut.com
USEFUL URLs
A look into the
research labs
COMING NEXT
Wearable computers have held an under-
ground niche with researchers since the early
1960s when Ed Thorp and Claude Shannon
created a wireless wearable computer that
could predict the game of roulette. However,
in the 1990s, independent university projects
began to shape an academic field of wearable
computing. The process continues today with
active academic groups in Europe, Asia, and
Australia. In the next issue, we will examine
why wearable computing makes such a com-
pelling research topic.
COMING NEXTCOMING NEXT
... [6] Für Starner sind Wearables dafür die wohl unkomplizierteste Umsetzung, da hier keine immense Infrastruktur (wie z. B. beim Smart Home) aufgebaut werden muss, sondern einzelne Geräte quasi unsichtbar als Kleidungsstück mit getragen werden können [7]. Wearables sind zudem im Kontext der Verschmelzung von Mensch und Maschine zum Cyborg zu betrachten: Der Mensch soll nicht (nur) die Umgebung mithilfe von Technik seinen Ansprüchen anpassen, sondern Technik auch dazu nutzen, den eigenen Körper als kybernetischen Organismus [8] auf externe Einflüsse einzustellen. ...
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Wearables sind kleine, am Körper getragene Computer, die, verbaut in Kleidung oder Accessoires, mitlaufen, ohne aktiv bedient werden zu müssen. Mit diesem Paradigmenwechsel, der den Computer in den Hintergrund und den Nutzer in den Fokus rückt, stellt die Wearable-Technologie eine technische Innovation dar, deren gesellschaftliche Auswirkungen jedoch noch ungewiss sind. Mittels Szenariotechnik wurden zwei explorative Extremszenarien gebildet, die polarisiert aufzeigen, durch welche Schlüsselfaktoren die Nutzung der Technologie dem Menschen mehr bzw. weniger Autonomie bringt. Es zeigt sich, dass die gesellschaftlichen Auswirkungen auf das Individuum davon abhängig sind, wer über die Nutzung, Gestaltung und Datenhoheit bestimmt.
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Alternative Computing Devices Report Series: Wearable Computing, tech. report #W19020, Int'l Data Corp
  • C Arrington
C. Arrington, Alternative Computing Devices Report Series: Wearable Computing, tech. report #W19020, Int'l Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., 1999.
Wearing IT Out: The Growth of the Wireless
  • J Fenn
  • A Linden
J. Fenn and A. Linden, Wearing IT Out: The Growth of the Wireless, Wearable World, tech. report SPA-13-2057, Gartner, Stamford, Conn., 2001.
MP3 Players and More: Forecast and Analysis of the Worldwide Compressed Audio Player Market, 2000-2005, tech. report #W24064, Int'l Data Corp
  • S Kevorkian
  • B Ma
S. Kevorkian and B. Ma, MP3 Players and More: Forecast and Analysis of the Worldwide Compressed Audio Player Market, 2000-2005, tech. report #W24064, Int'l Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., 2001.
MP3 Players and More: Forecast and Analysis of the Worldwide Compressed Audio Player Market
  • S Kevorkian
  • B Ma
S. Kevorkian and B. Ma, MP3 Players and More: Forecast and Analysis of the Worldwide Compressed Audio Player Market, 2000-2005, tech. report #W24064, Int'l Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., 2001.