Getting Schooled in Wearables

Three weeks ago I began the course that originally brought me to Bremen – Wearable Computing. This subject is part of the Artificial Intelligence research group within the Center for Computing Technologies (TZI) at Uni Bremen and is traditionally offered to computer science students. Recently this research group began offering their classes to digital media students in an effort to help the digital media program provide a more well rounded education for their students. This course in wearable computing takes primarily a theoretical approach while also looking at many of the practical aspects.

On the first day we covered what wearable computing is and the history behind basic computing going all the way back to the 1950s. It was quite fascinating to see how the purposes for using computers has been appended over the years. It all started with specific tasks and business computing in the 50s & 60s, then in the 80s we had the addition of more entertainment computing and in the 90s communication and information computing became mainstream. Looking at the history of wearable devices (not necessarily computers) we quickly discussed eye glasses, watches and Bluetooth devices. Dr. Lawo, our professor, related that when wearable Bluetooth ear pieces first began selling in stores he had his doubts that they would ever become mainstream. He admitted he was quite wrong and that the next wave of wearables, possibly with a built-in eye piece and CPU as seen in my picture below, just might have a similar story.

Looking at the purposes behind wearable computing we learned that wearables should support the user in doing a primary task (i.e. navigation) while not disturbing the user or becoming obtrusive. We also learned that wearables should have seamless integration with the environment and social context of the user.

Next we looked at the interactive design process for developing wearables that includes interviewing the full range of target users, sketching concepts, creating mockups, and then testing the users with every aspect of the device. Some of the main concerns are comfort for a wide range of body sizes, safety, hygiene and ruggedness. Another major concern with wearables is wiring. Just like with a pair of headphones, wiring with wearables is rather delicate and stressed connection points often cause failure.

One of the examples of the first wearable computers we talked about was developed by Symbol Technologies for United Parcel Services (UPS) package loaders in 1995 (Stein et al: Development of a Commercially Successful Wearable Data Collection System, ISWC’98). The wearable device that Symbol was tasked with creating needed to miniaturize and consolidate three key components; the display/keyboard, CPU and barcode scanner. The Ws 1000 (pictured here) that Symbol Technologies developed may not seem fancy now, but it’s quite interesting to think about how much more efficient the package loaders may have become after being equipped with this technology.

We also ventured out of the classroom to check out some of the wearables that Uni Bremen has in their lab and is currently developing. One of my favorites was the washable O’Neil snowboard jacket with an integrated MP3 player developed by Infineon. Others included a coat for flight attendants with a keypad built into the arm, a pair of coveralls for forestry workers with a built-in device for stopping machinery such a chain saw if it comes in close proximity to the worker and an eye display with built in bar code scanner that can help warehouse workers sort through their inventory.

Finally we talked about Steve Mann and Humanistic Intelligence, an information processing apparatus that is inextricably intertwined with the natural capabilities of our human body and intelligence. As you can see in the video below from last year, Steve Mann has been in the wearable computer since it’s inception and he believes that they can ultimately lead to better human communication.

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In my next post I’ll be looking at more practical uses for wearables and discussing some of the input and output devices that are currently being developed.

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