You Are What You Wear
By Niall McKay, Mon Aug 07 00:00:00 GMT 2000

On the ski slopes of Finland, in the nightclubs of San Francisco, and on the catwalks in Paris a new trend is taking hold. Wearable computing.


These are tiny networked devices that may look like jewelry or may be embedded in clothing but that will help the user stay connected to the digital world all the time.

It could be an earring that whispers information in your ear or a jacket that includes a speakerphone or a ring that enables you to let your loved one know that you're having a good or bad day. Wearable computing brings together fashion, communications and lifestyle to produce devices that look good and have digital functionality.

Sounds fanciful for sure but this is where the world's major computing and communications companies are investing the research budgets.

According to the analysis firm, Jupiter Communications, the number of connected devices will grow from 3.2 million in 1998 to over 37.3 million in 2002. "Successful appliances will not replace the PC but will include PC and communications functionality in cars, clothes, and cellular handsets," says Seamus McAteer, Jupiter's Director of Web Strategies.

IBM calls its initiative 'Digital Jewelry'
- a project dedicated to developing eyeglasses with embedded displays, watches that not only tell the time but also include date books, or cosmetic fingernails that include tiny displays. Currently in development is a set of earrings that connect over the wireless short range networking standard Bluethooth to a cell-phone or PDA in the wearers pocket. The earrings can then read email, calendar information to the user, or simply act as a wireless telephone headset.

To realize this new vision, IBM has recruited jewelers at its Almaden Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

"It's a completely new way of thinking for technology companies," Cameron Minor, research scientist at IBM Almaden. "Fashion is not about function its about life style marketing. Typically, we look for the next killer application and we think features now we find ourselves looking for the next trend or fashion instead."

The company has also developed a necklace that changes colors as the environment changes. "Our staff have been beta testing them in the nightclubs in San Francisco," he says.

While the digital necklace doesn't do much, in the future, says Minor, it might be tweaked to collect information about the environment or monitor the users reactions.

One example of a trend that took the tech companies by surprise is Europe's Short Message Service. The cellular operators offered the service as a nifty little extra but users seized the opportunity to send and receive text messages from their cell phones and now exchange over 2 billion messages a year over the GSM network, according to Cahners In-Stat Group, a US market research firm.

Adults use the service for sports results and stocks quotes, while kids use it for everything. Many 10-16 year olds send short messages to their parents' cell phones to let them know how they are doing and also constantly chatter with their friends.

Nokia, noting kids penchant for SMS, have developed a service called 'Digital Shout' with Finnish snowboarding clothing manufacturer Reima. The company will provide snowboarding jackets that include a speaker and microphone. When the wearer wants to send a message to his/her group of friends, they will press a button in their glove and simply speak. The message will be then sent to a pre-selected group over the cell phone network. "It's like SMS for voice messages," says Juha Kaario, Group Manager for Nokia Research.

Nokia is also working with the Paris-based Haute Couture fashion designer Oliver Lapidus to design clothing that allows hipsters to access email, date books, and make calls while striding through city streets. The stylish jackets and coats basically include all the functionally of a connected organizer and cell-phone with the stylishness of Haute Couture.

However, this brave new connected world of digital jewelry is floundering because of a few obstacles. One thing crucial to the success of wearable computing is voice recognition technology for outdoor applications. Currently, the technology works badly, at best. But without it, controlling a device is difficult so the technology companies are forced to include clumsy interfaces such as keyboards or buttons. Another significant obstacle is the competing cellular standards in Europe and the United States. Europe favors the GSM Network while the US is backing other standards such as TDMA. This makes it difficult and expensive for device manufacturers to produce devices that will work on both continents.

In the absence of a singe standard, the solution is a single chip-set that will log onto both networks. At Parthus Technology, a Dublin Ireland based chip design house, researchers are working single chip solutions that will work on both continents. Cellular chips typically 'wake-up' and log onto the network between six times a second, so engineers are designing chips that will 'wake-up' twelve times a second and will log-to the GSM network six times and the TDMA network six time in a single second. Within the next 18 months company officials believe that they can add GPS and Bluetooth capability to these multimode chips-sets. What does it mean for digital jewelry? It means in the not too distant future there will be tiny low-cost chip sets that that transmit data, voice and provide their location in a single second.

Indeed, because of the Clinton Administration's E911 initiative, a decree requiring all cellular handsets to provide their exact location, Global Positioning Technology (GPS) will likely be included in every cell-phone produced for the US market.

This enables a new world of location-based computing. Not only will it be easier for users to find a location and therefore the services they need but also it will make it easier for the services to find the user. For example, a user navigating their way around a city or building or a shopping mall could be guided to the nearest McDonalds.

Furthermore, new wireless networking technologies such as Bluetooth will enable device manufactures to dispense with the need for wires opening up new constellations of devices. With it, devices embedded in clothing or jewelry can exchange data with personal digital assistants, cell-phones or laptop computers in the immediate area. For example, a ring or a broach could act as an active badge, log onto the Internet and the wearers personal data, music, pictures and video files could be delivered to the nearest computer monitor.

However, for the time being devices will be much simpler. IBM's digital ring only sends an email message to love ones reporting three states being. Happy, sad, or just plain ok.

Its likely that much of technology needed to further the art of digital jewelry will be first developed for cell-phone and pager marketplaces and that pagers and communications functionality will gradually shrink down to a size and a price where they can be included in items of clothing and jewelry.

Motorola, for example, is already delivering different devices for different markets. A stylish alloy pager for the young and hip and a clunky plastic pager for road warriors. Now, many computer and cell-phone manufactures are contracting fashion houses to design their products.

Perhaps then the real question is: Will jewelry become digital, or will technology such as mobile phones become jewelry?

Niall McKay is a San Francisco-based writer and journalist who covers science and technology. He is a contributing editor to the Red Herring Magazine, a columnist for the Irish Times and writes for the Financial Times, Wired Magazine, Salon, and the New York Times.