Forgetfulness: a thing of the past? Wearable computers may catalog memory

November 04, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

We have eyeglasses to improve our vision, hearing aids to amplify our hearing, and watches to backstop our imprecise sense of time.

Now, scientists at IBM say they are working on new technologies that could lead to a "prosthetic memory" to record and file the things we see and hear, but quickly forget.

If it works out, "it means we don't have to forget things anymore," said David A. Thompson, a research fellow at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. He spoke Thursday at a meeting in Baltimore of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Thompson envisioned this "personal diary" system with video sensors in eyeglasses that could record anything the wearer sees, such as the last place he put his car keys, or the face of a business client.

If he draws a blank the next time he sees the client, he turns to his electronic memory.

"My eyeglasses would have a pointer that I can very subtly put on the face," Thompson said. "Then I ask the computer, "I want to know something about this face.' "

The computer searches its disk drive for a face that matches the one under the pointer, and retrieves the corresponding personal data or business card. The information would be shown as a virtual display on your glasses, or a video screen on your wristwatch.

The system would also have a microphone to record sounds and conversation. The words would always be there, available on a data storage drive when the wearer needs to recall a remark or a set of directions.

The prosthetic memory would demand a lot of new technology, he said, including very sophisticated software and high-capacity miniature disk drives. But all that and more is in the works.

There would be no need for wires. The data would be transmitted through the body -- zipping from the glasses, or the microphone, to the disk drive in your wallet or your shoe.

Researchers at Almaden are already seeking patents for "personal area network" technology that would transmit data through the body from one device to another.

The name derives from "wide area network," in which computers linked around the world share information, and "local area network," where computers within a school or company can exchange information.

A personal area network would exchange data from one part of your body to another. Or from your body to someone else's.

"It takes advantage of the natural salinity of the body, and the very, very, very low levels of electrical charge naturally in our bodies, to move the ones and zeros along," said IBM spokesman David Yaun.

(Normal functions of body and nervous system generate small but vital electrical signals. Computers, too, communicate through electrical signals, expressed in a "binary" language of ones and zeros.)

It's far too little electricity to feel, much less to deliver a shock or upset the body's own electrical communications, he said. In fact, its developers have been more concerned that the body's own electrical activity would interfere with the data transmission.

"The technologists describe it as one ten-thousandth of the charge created from running a comb through your hair, or rubbing a balloon. It really is amazing," Yaun said.

But it works. IBM plans to demonstrate it at this month's COMDEX electronics show in Las Vegas. The company plans to have two people exchange business card information with a handshake.

IBM is also developing the technology as a way to transfer data from one electronic device to another. A telephone number delivered through a pager, for example, could be up-loaded automatically, through the body, directly to a cellular telephone for dialing. A message could be delivered to a laptop computer.

Computer makers like IBM are also racing to produce hard disk drives that pack more and more data into smaller and smaller packages, so the "prosthetic memories" that Thompson envisions could store and manipulate the huge volumes of data they would require.

Shrinking the devices that store data is not a new endeavor. When hard disk drives were invented 40 years ago, it took 50 aluminum disks the size of Frisbees, in a housing the size of a telephone booth, to store 5 megabytes (five million bytes) of data -- enough to hold five typical novels.

Today's laptop computers commonly store as much as 2 gigabytes (2 billion bytes -- enough for 2,000 novels) on a 2 1/2 -inch disk, Thompson said, and advances in the pipeline will boost that to 90 gigabytes (90,000 novels) by 2005.

Digital still cameras are already using high-end miniature drives to store large volumes of image data until it can be downloaded into a nearby computer, or transmitted by cellular phone to a distant computer.

However, further miniaturization of hard disk drives based on magnetic data storage will encounter technical barriers as scales reach the limits of the materials and physics, Thompson said.

At that point, manufacturers will have to turn to different technologies. Several are under intensive development, however, and Thompson is confident that one or more will prove able to continue the rapid increase in data storage density and capacity.

"History has convinced me that by the time we get there, a thousand very bright guys will have done something to push it forward," he said.

Another challenge for IBM scientists working to develop a prosthetic memory is the software needed to organize and search the huge amount of stored data in an efficient and useful way.

"We have just as many people working on the software for this as for the hardware," Thompson said. "We don't have that kind of software today."

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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