Computer designer enters realm of style


September 16, 1991|By Tom Schmitz | Tom Schmitz,Knight-Ridder News Service

When Hideji Takemasa thinks about computers, he doesn't imagine hard plastic boxes squatting on desk tops. He sees soft, fluid shapes, wrapping around waists and flowing over forearms.

And when he goes to work at NEC Corp.'s advanced design center in Tokyo, that's exactly how he builds them. Mr. Takemasa's terminals look more like apparel than appliances. They hang from the shoulder, drape at the neck, climb up the spine.

"If you think about computers and humans -- their relations -- it is possible to have many different styles," he said.

So far, Mr. Takemasa's designs are just thought-provoking models. But he and other technologists envision a day when wearing a computer will be as ordinary as strapping on a wristwatch.

"We are going into an age where the whole concept of a computer will change," said Dan Harden, vice president of Frogdesign Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., which designed both the Apple Macintosh and the Next cube. "It will be much more something we integrate into our lifestyle. So why not have it on the body?"

Why not, indeed. As advances in electronics pack computer power into smaller and smaller spaces, finding new ways to configure them will naturally follow, technology watchers say. Optical-memory disk drives will double as fashion accessories. Microphones for speech recognition will be built into brooches and tie clasps, displays into eyeglasses.

What's more, such "wearable computers," will offer the ideal blend of form and function, allowing people to use them almost without thinking about it. "The technology of the product itself will become transparent," Mr. Harden said.

By comparison, some regard today's desktop machines as the electronic equivalent of the Model T Ford: You can have anything you want, as long as it's boxy and gray.

"If you look at computers now, nobody ever says buy one because of its design," said Sheridan Tatsuno, author of "Created in Japan." Instead, companies focus only on technical specifications, such as memory capacity and processing speed. "That leaves a lot of people cold."

Computer designers say they have envisioned wearable machines for some time. But NEC is one of the few companies that has displayed prototypes. Products under consideration:

* The "Porta Office": A waist-level mobile keyboard and handwriting recognition system that would include a speakerphone, headphone, still video camera and fax machine. The circuit boards and other electronics would be built into a tube, which would wind around the user's back.

* The Wearable Data Terminal: The terminal would come in two parts, both of which would adhere to the user's clothing. An optical character reader and touch sensors on the forearm would allow for data entry while information is processed and displayed on a chest platform. Possible uses include inventory control, manufacturing and police work.

* The Medical PC: This machine would use a goggle display, shoulder-mounted optical disk, video sensor, voice-recognition technology and a satellite link to help paramedics treat patients. Body temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs would be sensed by the computer while the medic would describe symptoms or injuries by speaking into a microphone. The computer would then recommend treatment from a medical encyclopedia or patch the medic through to a hospital physician.

Experts say such devices aren't nearly as outlandish as they appear. Much of the technology exists. The problem is how to integrate it into a single system at a reasonable cost. As a result, even NEC concedes wearable computers will most likely be a 21st century product, although some variations may show up sooner.

Arno Penzias, head of research at AT&T Bell Labs, said the biggest obstacle is not shrinking the technology but the inability to shrink the eyes, ears and fingers that will use it. He compared the problem to wristwatch calculators "where you have to have a pencil to push the buttons."

As a result, MR. Penzias said wearable terminals will be closer to telephones than desktop computers. "You really don't need to work on a spreadsheet while you are walking down the street," he said. "But you do need to keep in touch."

Instead of lugging around an entire computer, people may simply carry an "interface" device that will provide a remote link to machines in other places. "What we ultimately want is access," Mr. Penzias said. "You may be carrying around a microprocessor and some memory chips, but the more of this stuff you can have somewhere else, the better off you are."

Whatever form the technology ultimately takes, designers say it's high time computers become more humane.

"We're always trying to break these paradigms of what a computer should be," Frogdesign's Mr. Harden said. "It's usually the client that hesitates."

At present, most companies are focusing only on making machines that are simply smaller and cheaper versions of traditional desktop or laptop models, Mr. Harden said.

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