Wearable computing: rendezvous of the cyborgs

"You have to play around a lot to get usable wearable computer solutions," said Ansgar Schmidt of the Center for Computing Technologies at the University of Bremen, Germany, as he presents the latest achievement of his institute.

This consists of a high-tech work glove, with integrated mouse and data-entry functions, that's connected to a belt-mounted computer and a helmet-mounted screen. The equipment is designed for maintenance investigations at the Bremen Steel Works, allowing data collected there to be directly entered and processed.

"Solutions that are thought up at a desk usually don't work," Schmidt said. "So we had to do away with the contact in the index finger of the glove, because we were getting too many false entries in practical testing."

The Bremen "overalls computer" is one of many wearable technologies on display this week at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich. The halls of the polytechnic institute were teeming with cyborg-like figures, who were wearing strange data eyeglasses and gesticulating wildly with futuristic mobile input devices.

Such were the researchers from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., who were showing their latest development "Scurry." This consists of an input device that attaches to the hand, comprising measuring elements that are worn like rings on the individual fingers, and a processing unit including turn sensors on the back of the hand. With the help of the accompanying keyboard software, it allows a user to enter text.

"In the near future we want to market Scurry as a data-entry device for PDAs (personal digital assistants), and thanks to the force-feedback functions, also for Gameboy-like devices," said Sang-Goog Lee, head of the development department for wearable computers at the South Korean technology company.

Scientists from the University of Osaka presented two wearable track-ball mice as a text-entry system. With each of the two input devices, letters are selected that are arranged on the screen in two pie charts, one containing consonants and the other vowels. For now, the system only understands Japanese. And crashes during the demonstration by representative Satoshi Nakamura showed that some research work is still needed before the "Double Mouse" can be considered a product ready for the market.

Scientists from the University of Osaka presented two trackball mice as a text-entry system. With each of the input devices, letters are chosen from two pie charts on a screen, one of them containing consonants and the other vowels. The crashes during the presentation by representative Satoshi Nakamura showed that some research work is still needed before the "Double Mouse" can be considered a product ready for the market.

Much further along was the wearable system "Spot," presented by Carnegie-Mellon University. The palm-sized computer, which is attached to a belt, has supposedly reached the processing power of a laptop, and is soon expected to be able to handle speech processing.

Following the maxim of their founder Walter Gropius -- who declared that the design of usable objects must combine art and functionality -- members of the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, showed wearable high technology that still meets the demands of fashion, such as a display inserted in a baseball cap, and an embryo pulse monitor for pregnant women.

More information about the Symposium on Wearable Computers can be found at http://www.iswc.ethz.ch/.

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