By Michael Grebb, Wed Jul 02 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Wearable computing gets serious, military and law enforcement officials take notice.

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 products.

Field Research

In 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 spokesman.

Tactical Tailors

In 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.
Other companies, 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 computers."

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 body."
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.