Companies developing the pret-a-porter PC

Portability: Firms say the next, inevitable wave in computing on the go will entail making computers ready-to-wear.

March 26, 2001|By Chris Cobbs | Chris Cobbs,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Let's see - what computer shall I wear today?

I could dress up by selecting the pocket unit with the strap-on keyboard and headset.

Or I could go casual with the camera- and Web-enabled sunglasses, complemented with a watch and other computerized accessories.

Far-fetched as it might seem now, many of us will be making decisions like these in the next few years, thanks to work by IBM and other companies.

IBM researchers recently demonstrated prototypes of wearable PCs and digital jewelry at Innoventions in Epcot at Walt Disney World. The research effort is part of IBM's "pervasive computing" project, which envisions using cell phones, handhelds and miniaturized gadgets to make information available wirelessly everywhere.

Along with providing tiny gizmos that provide voice communications and connect us to the Internet, researchers are striving to create socially acceptable gadgets by reducing the geek factor.

"Anytime-anywhere access means having a device with you all the time," said Cameron Miner, lead designer in the Wearable/Pervasive Computing group in California. "We know people don't want to lug a laptop and a cell phone around all the time, so we're looking at scenarios for usage that will change the shape and feel of digital devices."

Two or three years from now, the choices for wireless communication may include necklaces, earrings, wristwatches, glasses and other wearable items.

"You may not want to walk down the street and access a spreadsheet, but you could do a phone call or have your e-mail read to you from the Internet through speakers in your earrings," Miner said. "We're trying to think about how all this will look and feel."

IBM relies on a variety of advisers, such as psychologists and anthropologists, along with informal product testers to get feedback on digital prototypes. At Innoventions, where IBM is one of 13 companies with permanent exhibits, the researchers collected feedback from park visitors.

"We heard from a cross section of America, as opposed to the Silicon Valley crowd," Miner said. "A very good insight came from a woman in her 60s or 70s, who said she really liked the jewelry and wanted to know if she could use it to send e-mail to her grandchildren."

It doesn't take a genius to know that mass-market, widely accepted wearable computers will differ from the models now used in airline maintenance and other industries.

The PC modeled by IBM's James Manon consisted of a headset, a keyboard strapped to his forearm, a computer attached to his belt and a handheld mouse.

The get-up screamed, "Honey, I shrunk the Think Pad."

"The idea with a wearable PC like this is to enable people to move around while getting access to information," said Manon, who drew stares from Disney World tourists. "The headset gives you the same view as a 15-inch monitor on a desktop, there's a slot for a hard disk and you have wireless access to the Web or your company intranet."

A new wearable PC expected later this year may sell for an estimated $8,000 to $9,000, said IBM's George Tatomwyr. A consumer version isn't likely to appear for several years, when it can be sold for about $2,000, he said.

Along with a reduction in price, the consumer version might offer several choices in wearable monitors, ranging from a model that shows a PC screen on eyeglasses to a display that projects a virtual image onto a user's retina.

"The challenge is to come up with products consumers will want, but it's evolving and nobody has pinned it down yet," he said.

According to Miner, women really weren't considered in the design of pagers and cell phones made to clip onto a belt.

"A woman in a dress may not have a belt to attach a portable device," he said. "We're starting from a different place in designing the next generation. We want to have communication and connectivity built into devices in subtle, socially acceptable ways."

Recognizing that it's not a jewelry company, IBM brought in a jewelry design expert to assist with the prototypes. Products marketed for men include a silver ring with a built-in pointing device to use with a cell phone or handheld.

Exhibited sterling silver women's jewelry - with a microphone embedded in the necklace and speakers in the earrings - that works as a phone or delivers wireless Web access.

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