With wearable computers, the future looks amazing

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In 2020, the fashionably wired mother of three will make no ordinary trip to the grocery store. After scanning her cupboards, she will recite a list into a microphone built into her eyeglasses. The items will be translated into text and appear on a computer screen built into the lenses. Inside the store, the woman’s identification ring will broadcast her buying habits to the store computer, which will beam back discount prices to the monitor in her eyeglasses.

Those are some of the visions of the hundreds of computer engineers who came to Pittsburgh recently for the Second International Symposium on Wearable Computers. They gathered to swap ideas and show off gadgets.

“This conference is mostly the geeks who are pushing like mad: ‘What can we do?'” said Randy Pausch of conference-host Carnegie Mellon University.

But with computer advances doubling every 18 months on average, the day when computers are tiny enough to sew into everyday clothing or build into normal eyeglasses is not far off, he said.

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“These guys really can do anything. It just takes time — and not much time,” he said.

From a distance, the conference resembled a gathering of jewelers. Many people wore plastic headbands holding thick cyborg-like eyepieces that displayed monitor screens. Some had keyboards in the form of clunky fingerless gloves strapped to their palms. The devices were typically connected to laptop-sized processors in a bag or awkwardly hooked to a belt.

“The big heavy bulky stuff is all current technology that nobody actually believes will be used by any normal human being,” said Steve Feiner, associate professor of computer science at Columbia University.

Instead, mass-marketed wearable computers are expected to be much more elegant. Feiner pointed to Motorola’s existing watch-pager.

“Things that are gadgety are going to be on our bodies in ways we’re comfortable with,” Feiner said.

One big hit at the conference was a pair of ordinary-looking, black-rimmed eyeglasses with a built-in monitor. The translucent display was about the width of a pencil eraser and sat in the middle of one eyeglass lens. Electronic circuits in one of the glasses’ temples beam the images onto the display. The wearer sees the image of a monitor that appears to be about 3 feet away and a quarter the size of a normal screen. But the monitor is translucent, so it does not block the wearer’s view.

The glasses are being developed by MicroOptical Corp. of Boston with the help of grants from the Defense Department.

“The soldier needs his hands free, so the monitor needs to be unobtrusive, preferably in something the soldier carries anyway, such as eyeglasses,” said Mark Spitzer, MicroOptical’s chief executive officer.

In combat, the monitor could display things like maps, targets and instructions from officers. The monitor will work with prescription lenses, and Spitzer said they could be available through optometrists within five years. By next year, Spitzer hopes to distribute them for specialty fields such as medicine and industrial maintenance. For example, somebody repairing the electronic controls of an airplane could refer to detailed instructions while using both hands to work.

“You’re really freed from your desk,” he said. “But for the average person to be able to get these, we need a big market.”

And the eyeglasses still have some bugs. Designers have not figured out how to fit a battery into the 3-ounce frames, so they work now with a wire connected from the back of the earpiece to a portable computer. Also, the circuitry in the temples remains too bulky to fit seamlessly into most frame styles.

Spitzer hopes one day that a tiny microphone could be added to the frames to work with voice-recognition software, so the wearer could tell the computer what to do. Several of the gadgets presented at the conference would rely on voice-recognition software, but no dependable version exists.

“If I could have one silver bullet, it’s the one I’d probably pick,” said Carnegie Mellon’s Pausch.

For example, Asim Smailagic, a Carnegie Mellon computer engineer, has designed a Walkman-sized translator that could be worn on the belt. Given accurate voice recognition, it could hear a sentence in one language and repeat it back in another.

Pausch noted that even accurate voice-recognition would not work in environments where silence is important, such as classrooms and conferences, and that’s why wearable keyboards or videocameras are useful.

Keyboards are a good example of how computer designers can hit a wall in terms of size: Smaller is not always better. Instead, adaptability to real-life needs is becoming more important than size.

“That’s an exciting mind shift,” Pausch said. He pointed to one conference gadget, a full-power computer the size of a double-wide cellular phone. With the flick of a switch, the user can hold the computer to an ear and use it as a phone. But the keyboard is too tiny to use comfortably, and the phone is much bulkier than its cellular counterpart, so the combo is no good for a mother of three in the next century.

“It’s a floor wax; it’s a dessert topping,” Pausch joked. “I mean, what the hell were they thinking?”

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