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Brave new wardrobe

Wearable computers: fashion trend of the future

When it comes to fashion, I'm stuck between the preppie eighties and the grungy nineties. It's not a pretty sight, as my wife will attest. But my wardrobe may soon become a whole lot hipper, thanks to some nifty gadgets that double as clothing accessories.

For example, Oakley's Thump combines a flash MP3 player with a set of lightweight and stylish sunglasses – a very cool gadget. Ingenio's Eyetop DVD fixes a tiny display to a pair of wraparound shades, which is wired to a portable DVD player on your hip (a bit clunky).

NYX Clothing is marketing jackets with LEDs sewn into the fabric that can display text messages from your PDA or your cell phone – handy for emergency roadside workers or all-night ravers. VectraSense Technologies sells a plus sneaker that physically adapts to your foot, records how far and fast you run, and can wirelessly zap your contact information to your compatibly clad fellows.

But before ware-wear becomes a standard part of our wardrobes, we will have to solve two niggling little problems: input and output.

Many of us already wear computers, only we call them cell phones, says Sandy Pentland, director of MIT Media Lab's wearable computing project. Like PCs, today's handsets let you surf the web, play MP3s and watch videos. Do anything fancier than jabber into the phone, though, and you'll quickly run into its Achilles' heel: an eensy-weensy keypad and screen.

Voice recognition can help, but just imagine barking commands at your handheld in a meeting or at the movies. One solution may be fabric keyboards sewn into a sleeve or pant leg, says Pentland. Another may be gesture recognition. Samsung plans to release a phone in Korea that detects movement: To dial, draw the number in the air; to end a call, shake the phone.

Displays are tougher. The usual approach has been to graft a display onto a pair of glasses, where it can be magnified to look like a 10-inch laptop screen. But this brings its own problems, says Steve Schwartz, a Media Lab alum who designs head-mounted displays for the US Army.

To get enough bandwidth to transmit video means running wires to the headset –ugly and potentially hazardous, especially in combat – or using a wireless antenna that sucks battery power, making the unit bulky and unattractive.

A possible solution may lie in low-voltage wireless technologies and organic LEDs that are brighter than LCDs but draw a fraction of the power, says Pentland.

Worse, with video, even small movements – like chewing gum with the headmount on – can give you a disorienting, nauseous feeling. There's also the distraction factor. "How is Joe Citizen going to parse a nastygram email from his boss while crossing the street without getting killed by a bus?" asks Schwartz.

So when will the average Joe or Jane open the closet and see wearable wares in there?

"If I'm feeling optimistic, then I say next year," says Pentland. "Pessimistic would be four or five years. The fundamental technology is all there, it just needs to mature."

Funny, that's exactly what my wife says about me and my wardrobe.


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