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Wearables Conference Explores Fringes of Fashion, Technology

Rich Fletcher -- The Tech
Nitin Sawhney G, Jennifer A Healey G, and Thad E Starner show off their creations in the Media LabUs fashion show last Wednesday.

By Dan McGuire

"We want to continue to be doing things that are so high risk that they can only be done here," said Media Laboratory Director Nicholas P. Negroponte, introducing the attendees at last week's convocation to what could be the computing world's next big trend: wearable computers.

The goal of wearables, as they are called in the business, is to help bring some order to life, said Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Alex P. Pentland, in the introductory session. Generally there are two ways to achieve order, he said.

"You can organize society, and in that way end up with something that's flatter and more uniform, but you end up with something that is not a natural environment any more," Pentland said. "There's another solution - augmenting yourself" to face the world, he said.

Technological advances have miniaturized electronics to the point where they can become part of one's environment, rather than tools that one uses and then walks away from.

Wearable computers, "are like a wristwatch. They're with you all the time," he said. "Things that are with you all of the time change your being. They get absorbed into your sense of self," he added.

"If computers can see, hear and reason, we can use them to augment our senses and our memory to make us more than we are," Pentland said.

Social and technical problems

Wearables are getting closer to reality, but serious technical problems stand in between the current state of technology and the goal of making wearables the "fourth wave" of computing technology, following mainframes, minicomputers, and the current microcomputer revolution.

The battery life problems that currently plague laptop development are also hindering wearables. Pentland said that this problem may go away as technology progresses. "We've discovered ways of storing power as you move around," he said. The human body can be used as an energy source.

The problem of proliferating wires is making current research messier. Researchers have discovered that "when you start building these things, you find yourself draped in wires" which connect cameras to processors to displays. There is hope that advances in wireless communication will remove the need for wires.

Controlling wearables remains a sticking point, however. Traditional keyboards cannot be used as input devices due to size constraints, so other solutions must be considered. Designing portable input devices "remains an open question," Pentland said. "We have some ideas, but there is no easy solution."

In addition, there may be social ramifications to the explosion of wearable technology. "Relying on computers for everything will dull people's sensibilities and feelings," said Kazuhiko Nishi, president of ASCII Corporation and one of the speakers. "It is crucial that computers and people coexist."

Vest applauds convocation

The wearables convocation represented a good blend of industry foresight and academic research, said President Charles M. Vest. The partnership "demonstrates the importance of blending fundamental and applied research, to the extent that those terms even make sense any more."

The conference-goers managed to fill most of Kresge Auditorium. "We're estimating about 1,400. That's about standard for us," said Valerie A. E. Minard, information coordinator for the Media Lab.

Among those attending were employees of the laboratory's corporate and government sponsors, researchers, and media, she said.