Explaining the world of wearable computers

Prof Bruce Thomas SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Think about having a supercomputer in your pocket.

The first supercomputer, the Cray-1, operated between 130 to 250 million floating point operations per second (MFLOPS) in the mid to late 1970s. Today’s smart phones operate over 800 MFLOPS.

The Cray-1 was used to develop nuclear bombs, but you could not play Quake on it.

What are you going to do with this computational power in your pocket?

The first thing is to be able to operate it while it is in your pocket. This is why you might wish to have wearable computing devices. So what are they?

Quite simply they are small electronic gadgets that you wear on your person.

A good example is a music player that you strap to your upper arm while on a run. The key element is that the device can be used while performing other activities.

This is subtly different than using a mobile phone while holding it. In the case of a phone you are required to hold the phone, press buttons and, for the most part, are stopped from performing most other tasks, such as driving a car.

Take the same phone, attach a hands-free unit to it, then place it in your pocket, and now you have a wearable computing device.

These are examples of simple wearable computing devices, but electronics can be woven into fabrics or sewn into clothing. For example, the music player could be part of your winter jacket or your watch integrated into the cuff of your dress shirt. Health monitoring sensors could also be integrated into one’s clothing.

An illustrative scenario is the following application to monitor how much physical activity a child undertakes at school. Small movement sensors could be manufactured into children’s school uniform shirts.

  1. The child merely wears the shirts normally, the parents wash the shirts, and the shirts are hung on special electronic hangers.

  2. Once placed in the e-wardrobe, the shirts are recharged and monitoring data is downloaded to the parents’ computer.

  3. A report is generated describing how many kilojoules the child expended during the week.

What makes this scenario compelling is the shirt is used in its normal fashion. There are wrist worn devices that perform the same function, but you have to remember to wear them, recharge them, and download data from them.

So how far away from reality are wearable computing devices?

There are a number of wearable electronic gadgets on the market today, and by in large the technology exists to build and sell more powerful devices.

I believe there are three key elements missing before widespread adoption of wearable computing devices: applications, durability, and infrastructure.

The proper and exciting uses of wearable computing devices have not been stumbled upon. As with most new concepts, people will use the technology in vastly different manners than imagined by the designers. These triggers have not yet been found.

The electronics have to be robust enough to survive modern lifestyles. Let’s be honest, modern washers and dryers are very harsh environments.

We are going to need additional devices like e-wardrobes and smart tall boys. Today I have to remember to plug a number of devices into chargers and data exchangers every night. It would be nightmare if I was forced to perform this duty with every piece of clothing or item I wore.

Once the wearable computing device applications have arrived, the proper device eco systems will emerge. These eco systems will drive more compelling deployment of wearable computing devices.

Why do we need them? This reminds me of conversations I have with my children: “Do you need this or do you want this?”

In the case of need, I would say we need wearable electronic devices for health reasons. People are restricted to locations due to the requirements of proper monitoring.

For example, proper measurements of blood pressure on a regular basis would allow doctors to better understand if medications were performing as required.

Technologies exist for this monitoring, but the application of this technology requires a user-friendly form factor.

In the case of want, I would say not having to remember to pick up my phone would be nice. Having the phone integrated into my clothing would in one sense simplify my life. Being able to turn it off would also be nice!

With the proliferation of pervasive networked devices, such as tablets, people are expecting information literally at their finger tips.

Wearable computing devices would allow people to more easily access information, interact with technology, and break free from operating IT equipment in one particular location.

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