A Wearable Computer

By Larry Krumenaker|Tuesday, February 01, 1994
Don’t get lost, keep in touch, and stay up-to-date--all at once-- with a portable computer you carry on your body, not in your hand.

To show off his invention, engineering professor Dan Siewiorek pretends he’s lost on the Carnegie Mellon campus, where he works. In front of his face is a one-inch-square monitor held in place by a headband. Siewiorek touches a switch on a fanny pack at his waist and says out loud the name of the building he’s trying to find. After a few seconds a map of the campus appears on the tiny monitor. As he walks, the map adjusts to each new point of view, and a red line marks the sidewalk leading to his destination.

The source of his geographical fix is the Navigator, one of an evolving series of portable computers that are designed to be worn. (The next generation will replace the clunky monitor and headband with fashionable wraparound sunglasses; the map will appear on the lens superposed over the actual view.) The idea for wearable computers originated in 1991 in an engineering course Siewiorek teaches. In the five times he has taught the course since then, he has given his students the assignment of improving on the wearable computer designed by the previous class.

Navigator’s computer guts rest within the fanny pack: a standard 25-megahertz 80386 microprocessor and an 85-megabyte hard drive for memory. Two smaller packs hold the batteries. The whole thing weighs in at under nine pounds. Navigator knows where it is because it receives signals from the Global Positioning System, the 24 satellites that blanket Earth and let airliners and ships, among others, pinpoint their locations.

A voice recognition system converts the wearer’s commands into sound patterns that are matched against Navigator’s 200-word vocabulary of campus names and places. When asked, say, to find the library, the electronic map and red guiding line appear along with a photograph of the library itself and, if named, a picture of a person who works there. Once inside the library, the wearer can name a more precise location, like Room 222, and see a second map of the library’s interior with another line leading to the designated room.

Siewiorek and his students have already developed the technology that will enable wearable computers to perform applications besides orienting. That’s being accomplished by adding preprogrammed modules no bigger than credit cards--these are essentially sophisticated versions of the cartridges used in the hand-held GameBoy. It’s called modular architecture, says Siewiorek, which means the software and hardware needed to run a specific task can be added or removed.

Future wearables will have more speed and memory (it takes about eight seconds for the current Navigator to interpret each second of speech). They’ll also weigh less; power consumption is being reduced so that fewer batteries will be needed. And the wraparound sunglasses that are replacing the headband monitor will include a VGA display for better resolution.

At this point wearable computers look a bit cumbersome for general use. But their chief appeal, says Siewiorek, will be for commercial users who are attracted to the wearables’ hands-free operation and their ability to instantly update whatever information is stored in the data base. The Marines have inquired about using such computers when repairing equipment on the battlefield. Instead of carting around numerous bulky service manuals, a mechanic will be able to use the wearable to view a transparent image of a vehicle’s broken part, read how to repair it, update its service records, and still have both hands free to make the fix.

Boeing Aircraft will be putting its manufacturing instructions on wearable computers next year. Several museums have inquired about using wearables for self-guided tours. And architects have asked about using them to develop see-through building plans that would reveal the exact locations of electrical wires, pipes, and framing hidden behind walls; if a pipe is rerouted, the plans could be instantly updated for the next repairperson. In short, the wearables provide access to information in a variety of work environments. It’s not fashionably high tech, says Siewiorek, but it is a working, portable tool.
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