Hardware, ready to wear

The merging of computers and clothing, odd as it sounds, is on the way. Levi Strauss is about to start selling wired jackets with integrated mobile phones and MP3 players, and that's just the beginning. In a few years, computerised hats may be as common a sight as mobile phones.

Warmth, music, and conversation

This September, Levi Strauss will start selling the ICD+ line of jackets in Europe. Designed and built in collaboration with Philips Electronics, the four jackets will come with integrated MP3 players and mobile phones. The jackets will sell for $US600 and up -- you can buy a mobile phone, a portable MP3 player, and a jacket for a lot less than that.

What makes an ICD+ better than three separate pieces? Integration. The phone and player work together; get a call while you're listening to music, and Beethoven stops so you can carry on a conversation. The earphones and microphone are built into the collar. A single unified "remote" controls everything.

All these pieces can be unplugged and removed from the jacket, and the phone and player can be used separately. In fact, you'll have to remove the gizmos before washing the jacket, although Levi Strauss assures us that the wiring inside the jacket can withstand the rigors of a washing machine.

Initially, the ICD+ jackets will be available only in Europe. Versions for North America and Asia are under consideration. The companies are also considering more advanced versions, including Internet devices and perhaps full computers.

Meanwhile, IBM has developed a prototype of what it calls the IBM Wearable PC. Not so much a piece of clothing as an accessory, the Wearable PC comes with a processing unit that clips onto your belt and a tiny monitor that hangs from a headband about an inch from your eye (and you thought people driving with mobile phones was dangerous). You'll manage input to this computer by voice or some sort of pointing device.

IBM doesn't have immediate plans for turning this prototype into a sellable product. Instead, Big Blue has licensed much of the technology to Xybernaut, a company that is already selling wearable computers.

Hefty price tag

Yes, someone's already selling this stuff. At this point, Xybernaut aims its wares at the people who need it most -- knowledge professionals who need technical expertise but can't spend their workday sitting at desks, such as technical inspectors and maintenance workers. If nothing else, the current $US5000 to $US6000 price range keeps Xybernaut's computers out of the hands of most users.

Xybernaut hopes to halve that price with its next generation of wearables (the ones with the IBM technology), appealing to a professional "near consumer" market in one to two years, and a consumer market after that.

A stitch in time

Before wearable computers become popular, they not only must get smaller, cheaper, and more powerful, but also more flexible. According to Maggie Orth, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, much of the technology will have to change before computers can take the sort of bending and twisting that clothes are designed for. "Today, connectors are the first things to fall apart," she says. Orth is working on, among other things, conductive thread through which you can pass an electronic signal.

And, of course, there's social acceptance. Will people wearing computers just look too silly to be taken seriously? IBM vice president Peter Hortensius doesn't think so. "Fifteen years ago no one thought that people would wear headphones and sing to themselves while jogging."

MIT's Orth thinks that acceptance will require a new paradigm, from practicality to play. "Computers are focused on making us better businessmen, helping us do our taxes, rather than having more fun. We'll have to create a computing fashion."

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Lincoln Spector

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