As the world shifts priorities following the
September 11th terrorist attacks, it's not
just individuals reassessing their lives; it seems that some industries
are doing the same thing when it comes to their products. One example
is the area of wireless wearable computing, an industry that has
struggled for years to generate widespread interest from commercial and
government sectors as well as consumers.
Of course, Sept. 11 is
helping to change all of that as military and law-enforcement
authorities look for ways to increase surveillance capabilities, allow
soldiers and officers in the field to communicate with each other and
send and receive data hands-free, and generally increase mobility while
decreasing the load operatives must carry around with them. And while
consumers don't appear anxious to emulate the Borg of Star-Trek
fame any time soon, it could be argued that wireless personal digital
assistants (PDAs) and hands-free cell phones are only one step away
from full assimilation.
For a peek at how the wearable
computing industry has started focusing on security products, one need
look no farther than Xybernaut, a wearable computing firm with a
fitting location right outside of Washington, D.C., in the Fairfax,
Va., suburbs. In recent months, the company has announced several
co-marketing agreements designed to integrate wireless and wearable
computing capabilities into more traditional security
late May 2002, Xybernaut announced an agreement to integrate its
wearable computer platforms with Viisage Technology's
face-recognition systems, including a flat-panel or head-mounted display
and camera systems. Using a wireless modem, such a system could allow a
border guard to snap a digital picture of a suspect at a border
crossing, send it to a central server to cross-check it against a master
database, and then receive instructions as to what to do - all without
the suspect realizing what was happening.
Indeed, such ideas
have been floating around for some time. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon
University, for example, had approached the Immigration and
Naturalization Service prior to Sept. 11 to gauge interest in a wearable
license plate and face recognition system.
"You want to get
access to the information without the suspects knowing they have been
singled out," says Dan Siewiorek, director of Carnegie Mellon
University's Human Computer Interaction Institute, which has
proposed hiding a wireless camera in a seemingly benign object. "It
could be a pen," he notes. "And the display could be built
into the sunglasses so the person wouldn't know that you were
getting instructions on what to do with them." With a sunglass
video display, guards could even gain wireless access to remote cameras
on hills "to get a bird's eye view of what's going on
without going back to the control room," he says. In the pre-Sept.
11 world, the INS passed on Siewiorek's ideas. He pauses when asked
whether the INS might be more receptive today. "They might
be," he says.
Of course, Xybernaut may beat him to the
punch. In May, the company announced a co-marketing deal with Ascentry
Technologies, which offers physical security networks that enable
security data to be accessed and controlled by mobile devices. By
combining such a system with Xybernaut's wearable platform,
security personnel could access and control video screens, audio, fire
alarms and other sensors from a small device worn on the belt rather
than be tethered to a security station. Xybernaut already sells a
"telemaintenance" product that allows, for example, an
airplane maintenance worker to snap a digital picture of a broken part
and send it wirelessly to a central office for a real-time discussion of
how to fix it.
Right now, the worker must use a cell-phone for
real-time conversations, but Xybernaut plans to eventually integrate the
wireless voice functionality directly into the wearable computer.
"But first we have to build relationships with the cell phone
companies so that they view wearable computing as just another form
factor." says Mike Binko, a Xybernaut director and
perhaps its most attention-grabbing move, Xybernaut announced in late
May that it would integrate its tactical wearable computer within
ballistics armor sold by Second Chance Body Armor, the largest U.S.
manufacturer of body armor that supplies such entities as the U.S.
Secret Service and Capitol Hill Police, as well as SWAT teams and police
departments throughout the U.S. Xybernaut notes that the combined
product could help local and federal authorities protecting nuclear
power plants, seaports, airports or other potential terrorist targets
from attack. Wearers will be able to store information, communicate,
record and stream video and large amounts of data, operate sensor
devices, and perform other activities while keeping their hands free and
remaining weapons-ready at all times.
In addition, the body
armor will protect the wearable computer from damage in the event of a
firefight or other such incident. "After September 11, we thought,
`There really might be a need for this more quickly than we had
anticipated'," says Binko. "So why not integrate the two
to protect the unit and the user?"
Binko says a "good
portion" of Xybernaut's business comes from government
entities, but he declines to break out exactly how much. To date, most
of Xybernaut's products are used by private entities for functions
unrelated to security. For example, the Toronto Blue Jays use
Xybernaut's wearable platform so that ticket sellers can make sales
by walking around the crowd (upstaging illegal scalpers in the process).
And Binko says Federal Express has used Xybernaut gear to shave four
hours of its average plane-repair time.
Bell Canada, meanwhile,
recently outfitted 30 technicians with Xybernaut wearable computers to
communicate while climbing poles or in underground conduits; Binko says
the devices saved 50 minutes per day per technician. Still, Binko says
interest from government and security agencies has been ramping up
considerably even as the company tries to remain focused on both
commercial and government products. "Our goal is to have each piece
of the pie extend exponentially," he says.
meanwhile, are working on devices that are even more
"wearable," including some futuristic fashions in which the
clothing itself literally acts as a circuit board. "The need to
conceal wireless listening and communications devices has never been
more pressing in light of 9/11," says Scott Jordan, president of
Technology Enabled Clothing and SCOTT eVEST, which integrates circuitry
into clothing. "This can only be done with wearable
This Message WillSelf-Destruct
At the Georgia Institute of
Technology, researchers have developed a "smart shirt" that
uses interwoven sensors and circuitry to detect bullet penetration and
transmit soldiers' vital signs to a remote medical triage unit to
give physicians more detailed information about the soldier's
condition. Georgia Tech has since licensed the invention to a company
called Sensatex, which plans to commercialize it for public safety and
anti-terrorism uses. "The importance of wearables has been
recognized since September 11, and this technology can help in a variety
of ways," says Sundaresan Jayaraman, the Georgia Institute
professor who invented the Smart Shirt. Such technology could
potentially help find and treat injured firefighters or police officers
at a disaster scene.
As for the consumer market, whose interest
in wearable computing has been lukewarm to say the least (unless one
classifies hands-free cell phones as part of the space), the future is
less certain. But adoption by commercial and government
sectors-especially as the need for security continues to increase to
prepare for future terrorism that many believe is all but
inevitable-could well push industries to innovate at a previously
unrealized level. The result could be sleek products more in the spirit
of Armani than the Borg.
"Just you wait," says Jim
Barry, a spokesman at the Consumer Electronics Association. "This
is following a time-honored trend line here. These products will wind
their way to becoming consumer products at some point." Barry notes
that global positioning system (GPS) technology now commonly used by
automobile navigation systems such as OnStar began as military
technologies. "If there is a spurt of development in military and
commercial spending [on wearable computers], that will eventually find
its way down to consumer products," he says, adding "things
move much more quickly than they used to."
Experts point to
system-on-a-chip advances, less bulky power supplies, and the nascent
fields of nanotechnology as just a few of the factors that will make
wearable computers with wireless functionality more common among
consumers in the coming years. "Even small cell phones are wearable
now," says Chris Conley, assistant professor and director of
product design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "The stuff
we wear is in the world of fashion. Those guys have to start thinking
'wearable.' It can't just be a device you slap on the
In the end, that might be the common thread linking
consumer and security applications in wearable computing: Whether a
soldier in the battlefield or a real-estate agent on the go, no one
wants to be weighed down by bulky devices. The difference is that when
it comes to security in the post-Sept. 11 world, it could be a matter of
life and death.
Michael Grebb has
previously written for The 'now-defunct' Industry Standard,
Business 2.0, and eCompany. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of
mobile technology on modern society.