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Computers That You Can Wear

Experts predict that wearable computing will be the next big thing, but some exciting devices are already here.

It’s an exciting time for the wearable-computing industry. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen declared in a recent interview that wearable computers were the next big thing for Silicon Valley, and the past few months have seen a flurry of new product announcements in the arena.

A device that records everything you see for later playback, a bracelet that comfortably and discreetly monitors your health, Dick Tracy’s watch phone--these devices aren’t just coming soon, they’re here.

For instance, WIMM Labs announced just this week a new line of Android-powered devices small enough to fit on your wrist but powerful enough to help you keep track of your calendar, the weather, and more. As our own Ed Oswald was quick to point out, however, we’ve had the technology for these kinds of devices for years. Microsoft’s similar SPOT watch launched way back in 2003.

Wearable computing has already become part of our lives. What else is on the way? Travis Bogard, vice president of product management and strategy for Jawbone, says that the next few years should see wearable computing expand to new areas as consumers become more comfortable with the idea.

Jawbone is best known for its line of Bluetooth headsets, but recently it announced Up, a bracelet that will launch by the end of the year. The discreet device will keep tabs on what you eat and how you sleep, and it will monitor your movement to help you see how much exercise you get. You’ll be able to stay on top of all that information via a phone app that lets you check your data throughout the day.

As exotic as these devices may seem, in many ways they’re just a natural extension of a wearable-computing lifestyle that has already found adherents. Over 3 million runners currently use the Nike+iPod system to keep track of their exercise. The small Nike+ sensor, which costs $20, fits into the heel of a running shoe and records how far and how strenuously you run. The device, coupled with an attractive Web interface, has helped runners log over 420 million miles' worth of exercise since it debuted in 2006.

The Nike+ system is just the tip of the iceberg for the wearable-health industry. For several years, companies such as BodyMedia, with its $180 FIT armband, and Apex Fitness, with the $200 BodyBugg system, have offered devices that can monitor how many calories you burn during the day and, with the help of an online food journal, help you lose weight.

What’s Next?

The next step for wearable computing may be a focus on the design of wearable-computing devices. Traditionally, wearable computing has valued function over form--but with smaller and more comfortable devices such as the Up and the Nike+ on the market, that’s changing. Jawbone's Travis Bogard says the end goal is to take wearable computing from a novelty to an almost invisible part of our daily lives. “You want to be able to stay connected with all that information, and you want to do it in a way that can get onto the body in a seamless way,” Bogard says.

Jawbone has some experience in that area. From the very beginning, the company has seen its Bluetooth headsets as wearable computers. “In a world where you’re out there mobile and moving around, in that mobile world, the reality is that we use our hands and eyes to navigate,” Bogard says.

Some wearable-computing concepts obstruct the user's vision with complicated overlays, or occupy the user's hands with miniature keyboards. Such designs keep users from interacting with the world normally. Bogard says Jawbone thinks of its headphones as a solution to this problem. “Audio is interesting because it doesn’t use up those resources,” he says. And freeing people to use their eyes and hands normally is “a key element of interacting with computing without having to be so physically engaged with it.”

Bogard argues that every time you put on a Bluetooth headset, you’re already taking part in the wearable-computing revolution. The experience is just so commonplace, and so comfortable, that we don’t even notice it anymore.

But for Bogard, at least, that isn’t just a side effect of good design--it’s the goal. Bogard believes good design should be invisible to the end user, and only when it becomes a natural extension of ourselves will the technology really take off.

Wearable Computing’s History

That approach is a far cry from the common vision of the wearable computer in the public imagination. Though some experts define wearable computing so broadly as to include the pocket watch, the idea--as it is commonly understood today--was born in the early 1980s as academics created complicated proof-of-concept rigs that covered the whole body.

Though the early experiments stretched the definition of "portable" (an early model by wearable-computing pioneer Steve Mann had to be carried around in a backpack), the efforts also helped to shape the public perception of the wearable computer. To most people, the term usually refers to an extensive rig that looks, frankly, a little embarrassing. These systems have more in common with the Borg from Star Trek than with a Bluetooth headset.

Of course, even experimental systems have become smaller and less noticeable over the years. In 1994, Steve Mann created a new wearable-computing system and began an ambitious project to transmit his whole life, live, for two years. By then his system was a rather bulky series of boxes that hung off his belt. After the experiment ended, Mann slimmed his system down even more. By the late 1990s, his rig consisted of a particularly large pair of sunglasses attached to a single small box hooked onto his belt.

Today the ability to record everything you see is available to the average consumer: The $200 Looxcie 2, a small camera about the size of a Bluetooth headset, fits over your ear and lets you record up to 10 hours of POV footage that you can download to your computer for a daily log of your activities.

As computing technology continues to get smaller and more powerful, the possibilities for wearable computing can only expand. Travis Bogard likens the state of the industry to that of the personal computer in the late 1980s. Now that wearable technology is such an integral part of our lives, we need to explore what exactly these new portable computers can do.

Although the possibilities for the industry are exciting, the most fascinating thing about the wearable-computing future may be that it has already arrived.

For more wearable computing, past and present, try our slideshow on the history of wearable computers.


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