Thad Starner first started wearing his computer in 1993. He would strap a shoe box of electronics to his waist and a small keyboard to his wrist and don a bulky headset with a small display monitor suspended in front of his left eye. After a while the other students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stopped gawking and accepted him as just another nerd. Nowadays, however, Starner is looking much more fashionable. He's a professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, for one thing, and his wearable computer looks just like a pair of ordinary black-rimmed glasses--except for the thumb-size gadget on the frame that beams a tiny, bright image onto the lens. "The goal," says Starner, "is to have the computer disappear into your clothes so that no one knows you have it."
Starner is a living history of wearable computers. What used to be clunky contraptions only a nerd could love have now gotten closer than they've ever been to disappearing into your clothes. High-tech companies such as IBM and Philips, and also clothing firms such as Levi Strauss and Nike, are putting miniature computers into everything from wristwatches to running shoes. These are not stand-alone devices: they're linked to each other and wirelessly to the Internet.
Many high-tech firms were testing the waters at last week's CeBIT, the giant technology trade fair in Hanover, Germany. IBM showed wearable computer peripherals such as a silver necklace with a hidden microphone, a woman's display watch, earrings with speakers, and a ring whose elegant turquoise stone doubles as a nifty scroll-point mouse. Equipped with tiny, wireless Bluetooth transmitters, these are unobtrusive interfaces for a computer or a phone. "If you have something with you all the time, you might as well be able to wear it," says Cameron Miner, lead scientist at IBM's design lab in San Jose, California.
IBM isn't saying when products will come out. But Philips and partner Levi Strauss, the bluejeans maker, are bringing out a summer collection of "wearable electronic garments"--jackets with a GSM mobile and an MP3 player in special pockets, with a remote control on the front flap of the jacket and a microphone in the collar. The wires are sewn in. The two devices work together, with the music turning off when you talk on the phone. (The winter collection, available only in Europe, has already sold out.) Hitachi confirmed it was bringing out a wearable, wireless Internet device in Japan this summer with a lightweight Shimadzu headset to let you walk, talk and surf the Web at the same time.
What exactly are we supposed to do with all this technology? "The introduction of always-on, next-generation wireless devices will let us communicate, interact, get information and entertainment wherever we go, all the time," says analyst Jackie Fenn of Gartner Group in Lowell, Massachusetts. She envisions always-on e-mail, "buddy alerts" that sense if your friends are nearby, plus downloadable music and video wherever you go. "Proactive" computers will remind you to do things, tell you if you're about to forget your keys at home and guide you through a world in which everything is "smart" and gives out information. Staying in tune with all that requires more than a handheld in your briefcase. That's why Gartner estimates that by 2010, 40 percent of adults and 75 percent of teenagers will wear always-on gadgets. For every hour they spend in the real world, they'll spend 10 in the "e-world."
Nike is targeting today's kids as early adopters of wearable technology. Last year the firm set up a new Techlab division to develop such products as a running shoe with a built-in wireless pedometer that tracks speed and distance. Rival Adidas has joined a consortium that's developing high-tech fabrics that turn clothes into sensors, data networks and walking antennas. Medicine is also conducive to wearables. One firm is developing a wristwatch that beams data to your doctor. Another is working on sensors with wireless transmitters for diabetics.
Before wearables become commonplace, engineers will have to resolve a few technical issues. First, third-generation wireless technology will have to be made reliable enough to support always-on gadgets. Bluetooth--a wireless technology made for small, personal area networks that link wearable devices to each other--is only starting to come out after big development delays. The wearable devices themselves are also costly: Hitachi's new wearables will cost $1,700, and others can run to $7,000. And making our environment "smart" so that every shop or product can send out information will take a new kind of infrastructure--big servers that direct the flow of information behind the scenes. That's not likely to be up and running any time soon.
And besides, do we really want to be always connected everywhere we go? "The only alternative I see is that we're not the information and communications junkies that I think we are," says Gartner's Fenn. And that's not likely.