Monday, March 18

Pervasive and truly personal computing

Wearable computers are movement- and voice-activated extensions of their users. They afford access to all kinds of information about the user's surroundings. In other words, they mediate 'augmented reality' (see also the Infoscope article below), involving the integration of the real and the virtual world. The new wireless wearables have countless potential uses––industrial, medical, navigational, military, financial (e-money and digital signatures), and much more.

The head-mounted displays (HMDs) of wearables allow the user to look at the virtual and real worlds simultaneously. It is, for example, possible to read e-mail while walking down the street. Students can take notes while watching the teacher, rather than constantly glancing back and forth between paper and blackboard.

Future emergency personnel will use wearable computers to access life-saving information in hazardous environments. Future tourists may sport geeky get-ups that give them access to maps of every street, multimedia clips about historic sites, and a digital camera that replaces both the camcorder and the regular camera. People with face blindness (prosopagnosia; see will be able to 'recognise' others by getting people’s names superimposed on their faces on the computer screen (an 'augmented memory' application).

Like multimedia PCs, wearables can have all kinds of consumer electronics integrated into them. A single device will be able to handle all forms of electronic media, be it audio, visual or wireless digital communication.

Wearables have vast educational potential. More and more pupils at American schools are taking them wherever they go. Children with speech defects and other learning disabilities are among the foremost beneficiaries. Plaudits for this 'assistive technology' at the recent 7th annual International Conference on Wearable Computing in Chicago include claims that it has
* 'turned introverted eight-grade geeks, wise guys and insecure girls into confident digital mavens' (Alexandria County Day School Director of Technology Sherry Ward)
* 'been like night turning into day' (special-education teacher Lisa Zverloff, Coventry Local School District near Akron, Ohio, whose pupils have disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to autism) for some pupils
* given non-disabled pupils independence and stronger academic, cognitive and communications skills (Xybernaut developers).

The Mobile Assistant (MA V) device made by Xybernaut Corp., for example, consists of a computer module with a 500 MHz Intel Celeron processor, 256 MB SDRAM, a 5 GB hard drive and powerful speakers, attached to a flat panel display the size of a paperback. The touchpad display has built-in speech and handwriting recognition. The package includes a robust nylon backpack, but the system is typically worn on a belt holster with a headset-style video display, microphone and earpiece speaker, and a wrist-mounted mini-keyboard.

At, Xybernaut claims that the MA V brings 'the power and functionality of a state-of-the-art desktop computer' to all pupils, giving them the tools they need wherever they are––in the classroom or at home, in the playground or at the grocery store. Programs like Xyberkids allow teachers to develop, for example, lessons that integrate pictures with speech. They can be adapted to pupils’ individual needs: one software application, for instance, allows pupils with speech difficulties to communicate through touch-activated icons.

As for user acceptance, the 'covert wearcomp/wearcam systems' developed in the early 1990s, especially the 'underwearable computer', have made it possible to ' be wired without looking weird' (Steve Mann). Computers will be sewn into clothing, and even machine-washable.

The logical conclusion of pervasive computing is 'ubiquitous computing' (or 'ubicomp' for short). Mark Weiser (Chief Technologist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center) writes at
'For thirty years most interface design, and most computer design, has been headed down the path of the "dramatic" machine. Its highest ideal is to make a computer so exciting, so wonderful, so interesting, that we never want to be without it. A less-traveled path I call the "invisible"; its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.'
Whichever way we go, the chances are that people will no longer say they are 'going to work on the computer'. Instead, computers will be integrated into every aspect of our daily lives. Users may have hundreds of computers at their disposal, each automatically performing some task in response to its environment. These 'super-toys' (cf. Brian Aldiss) should require little or no conscious input from their users. The users may hardly even be aware of the computers' presence.

With 'affective computing', wearables and other computers will even be able to recognise and respond to their users’ emotional states, using body-mounted sensors. A computer language tutor, for example, might change its pace and presentation in response to the user’s naturally expressed signs of interest, boredom, frustration or confusion. But I was forgetting: with rapid-fire virtual interpreters whispering in our ears and voicing our thoughts for us, there will hardly be any need for us actually to learn foreign languages any more.

Sources and references

* FAQs about wearable computers, compiled by pioneers Steve Mann, Greg Pfeil, Bradley Rhodes and Josh Weaver:
* ‘Smart Clothes: The MIT Wearable Computing Web Page’ by Steve Mann:
* Report by Al Swanson from United Press International, March 2002:
* Xybernaut:
* MIT projects:
* Ubiquitous computing: and!rodney/mike_essay_copy.html.
* ‘Super-toys last all summer long’ by Brian Aldiss (the story that inspired Spielberg’s film AI):