Are Tiffany's and Cartier about to be challenged by IBM?
The company once famous for its white shirt-black tie uniforms is leaping into the world of fashion with prototype digital jewellery that could be either the best thing in nerdwear since pocket protectors or one of the most annoying inventions of our time.
At a recent high-tech fashion show, IBM gave a sneak peek at a matching set of silver earrings, necklace, watch, and ring that at first glance looks like ordinary jewellery. The set is actually a wearable mobile phone.
Here's how it works: instead of hearing your mobile phone squeal when you get a call, a tiny light starts blinking on your ring. The phone number of the person calling is displayed on the watch. You answer the phone by pressing a button on your watch. Next, you hear the call through your earring, which has a tiny speaker embedded in it. You then speak to the necklace, which has a tiny microphone inside and acts as a mouthpiece. Whether your neighbours on the bus will appreciate it is another question.
"Technology to make this prototype is here today," says Michael Karasick, chief technology officer and director of architecture for IBM's Pervasive Computing division.
Wired clothing, such as jackets lined with mobile phones and cloth that can display digital images, is being developed by players ranging from Levi Strauss to Xerox. But IBM's jewellery takes functional fashion to a new level.
A different kind of bodywear
The matching set is part of IBM's growing family of prototype digital jewellery. The connected high-tech fashion is being developed under the auspices of IBM's Pervasive Computing division. Its ambition is to network everything under the sun, ranging from nose rings to coffee pots and car stereos. Then, each is linked to one colossal IBM network.
The mobile phone/jewellery set is the second jewellery prototype IBM has rolled out. In 1999, IBM unveiled the WatchPad - a personal information manager that resides on your wrist. The watch product can synchronise data and images with a handheld device or PC via wireless connections.
But the jewellery products are tame compared to some of the things under development at IBM's Almaden research centre in California. There, IBM researchers have developed a sugar cube-sized wearable camera that mounts onto eyeglasses for taking digital pictures anytime anyplace. Then there's the wallet-sized Person Area Network (PAN) device. It uses natural electrical conductivity of the human body to transmit digital data. As you're wearing your PAN, you can swap data with other PAN owners via a simple handshake. This could put a whole new spin on hacking and computer viruses.
IBM is also working on "emotion sensing," which relies on biosensors that monitor body temperature, heartbeat, and ultimately moods. Data can then be blasted wirelessly over the internet to, perhaps, a spouse trying to determine whether tonight is a good time to break some bad news. It can help you gauge, for example, how she'll welcome that wearable mobile phone for her birthday, instead of the diamond tennis bracelet she's been eyeing.
Better than squinting
The impetus behind making digital jewellery is that wireless devices are getting harder to use because of small screens and tiny inputs, say IBM representatives. IBM wants to reinvent the interface of mobile phones and personal digital assistants and make them more transparent. It's doing this by putting VGA screens on watches, embedding a microphone in a broach, or outfitting a ring with a pointing device that can act like a TrackPoint.
Karasick admits that IBM still has a few technology wrinkles to iron out. For example, IBM still hasn't invented a powerful enough miniature rechargeable battery for its army of tiny internet-enabled wearables. After all, do you want to have to recharge your earrings while you're at work? Who will make, market, sell these types of devices is also far from clear.