Clothing yourself in new technology

Smart clothes could soon mean being able to control your environment with your underpants. Michael Evamy looks into some exciting developments in the world of wearable technology

Like many people, I try to travel light. But when I go out, technology weighs me down. My phone weighs more than my jacket. My Sony Discman remains indoors, almost permanently tethered to my amplifier. Both devices are a burden: I find I am transporting them, rather than they accompanying me. If I also had a pager and a personal digital assistant (it sounds like a miniature manicurist), I’d feel like I was carrying half of Currys around with me.

In the great scale of things, this is hardly apocalyptic. But what these shortcomings indicate is that manufacturers of so-called “personal” electronics have a long way to go before their products dovetail with our day-to-day lives. Technology at present has to be seen and interacted with, when it should be transparent and subservient to the things we do.

There is a small community of researchers and companies around the world who are trying to make this idea work by developing computers and communicators that you wear. These range from hi-tech body extensions to wired-up underpants to tiny stone-like capsules worn in the ear. Devices that started out years ago as headsets and backpacks worn by Star-Trek-obsessed engineering postgraduates are being condensed into special spectacles, belts, jewellery, footwear, hats and even underwear. Now increases in chip capacity and reductions in the size of motors, optical technology and power-consumption are turning wearable technology from science fiction into reality.

The engineers have done their bit – working prototypes exist for many such devices. As always, questions remain: what functions would we like these things to serve? How will they affect traditional social intercourse, like conversations? Will users want to display the technology they wear? And how will a proliferation of almost invisible cameras, computers and phones affect our freedom and right to privacy?

Wearable technology is hardly new; only the technology is new. Spectacles made from transparent quartz were worn in the 13th century, and the pocket watch was invented in 1762. In 1907, pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont commissioned a wearable timepiece from Cartier that would allow him to keep his hands free for flying. The next piece of ubiquitous wearable technology was the Sony Walkman, in 1979. The first wearable computer was built in the Sixties by two engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ed Thorp and Claude Shannon claimed that their device could be used to predict roulette wheels – useful, but they might have had problems trying to smuggle it past a vigilant bouncer.

Today, it is possible to buy – at considerable cost – a fully-functional, hands-free, speech-activated wearable computer. There is a product called the 133P Mobile Assistant from Xybernaut in Virginia designed for specialised work that demands access to large volumes of data, but which occupies the hands, like aircraft maintenance and technical inspections. There is a CPU carried on a belt, a battery pack, an optional wrist-mounted mini-keyboard and a headset featuring a microphone, earphone and a tiny, one-inch diameter monochrome screen that swivels down in front of either eye. Despite looking like they have walked off the set of Die Hard 8, users report that the system takes only 10-20 minutes to get accustomed to.

There are other specialised headset-based systems around. But, in terms of making wearable technology available for consumer use, MIT has led the way since the Sixties. Its MediaLab runs an ongoing wearable computing project whose main aim, it seems, is to see how small and how wearable it is possible to make existing pieces of consumer electronics: computers, phones, cameras. Since 1980, long before even laptops, MIT’s Steve Mann has built a series of prototypes of “personal imaging” systems linked to portable computers. The latest incarnation features a CPU worn under the shirt, a hand-held control and what looks like an Orbisonesque set of wide, dark sunglasses. A camera mounted near the eye records what the user sees while a tiny, transparent head-up display superimposes messages within the eye’s field of vision about what it sees.

Why would we need such a thing? Mann likes the idea of being able to read e-mails while walking around. He also believes there are uses for a system with a visual memory: one that recognises faces and reminds the user of their names, or one that helps with finding your way around.

Eventually, the ability to send data and live voice and video messages to networks of colleagues could be a great asset. Architects, for example, could walk around a site delivering images and a commentary back to the studio or to a client. It would be a godsend for documentary-makers. But serious questions are raised by making such technology undetectable: people have a right to know when they are being filmed or recorded. The more transparent and mobile technology becomes, the easier it is to envisage the nightmare of 24-hour surveillance. Worse still, imagine the rise in You’ve Been Framed-style TV shows. Jeremy Beadle on every channel.

Mann and the team at MIT have developed variations on the wearable computer as well as items of smart clothing that can detect the wearer’s emotional state or interact with the built environment. A pair of smart running shoes that measures the user’s pulse and running/walking rate and transmits the data could alert someone at home if something was wrong: if the pulse was high, or if the running had stopped.

Mann has even wired up his Y-fronts. Underwear that can sense how hot and sweaty we get could be used to remotely control the heating and air-conditioning in the office or home. Nice idea, but probably only if you live by yourself and are particularly sad and/or sweaty. Anyone who wants to control central heating through the temperature of their nether regions is, I would suggest, not making the best use of available technology.

The MediaLab work has broken new ground and explored important issues about the social acceptability of wearable technology. The problem with it is that it is engineering-led, focused on making existing devices more powerful, compact and portable. Only recently has there been collaborative work with textile students to develop washable fabrics with interwoven electronic circuitry – work that needs to be done for technology to recede from view and for smart clothing, programmed to our individual needs, to become a reality.

It’s all very well going into a supermarket with a headset originally designed for fighter pilots, but who wants it? And if anyone does, what about everyone else? A delegate to a wearable computing conference in 1997 told me of the difficulty in having a simple conversation with the demonstrators of headset-based systems: “I was aware that he was maybe typing away on this thing while I was talking to him, which was very off-putting. One guy was wearing a computer in a hat with a screen in front of his eyes. You could see him looking up into a screen. It is very disconcerting when you’re trying to have a conversation. It was like, hello, are you concentrating on what I’m saying?”

Rachel Murphy, one of the new crop of computer-related design postgraduates from the Royal College of Art, has explored the issues surrounding intimate technology. “Wearable technology is so close to the body, it’s much more about the sensual side of what we do rather than the business side. MIT has, I think, come from the point of view of what technology they can put on the body, rather than thinking about what is appropriate to the body,” she says. Her ideas are more poetic than thermostatic underpants, though one of them does involve body heat. Touch Me is a concept system that would allow lovers to warm each other’s ears. Each partner wears a Walkman-style earplug with a heating element linked to a circuit board and transmitter. By touching his or her earpiece, one would remotely warm up the other’s lughole.

Murphy’s ideas coincide with those of Philips, whose rejuvenated design group in Eindhoven has produced some of the most seductive images of the wearable technology of the future: jewel-like cordless receivers shaped from “memory materials” to fit our ears; tiny text projectors fitted to the arm of our spectacles; videophone watches; magic pens that store the information we write; and “hot badges” to transmit personal information about the wearer to others and help break the ice between strangers.

Philips, more than any other in the field, is alive to the need for human-centred wearable technology. Its proposal of familiar objects – pens, watches, badges – as vessels for intelligence will reassure anyone fearing an invasion of urban road warriors with swivelling eyepieces.

Philips and its rivals may also be aware that the more invisible wearable technology becomes, the more it merges into the fabric of our lives, the more invisible their brands become. They would never back themselves into such a corner. Technology will get smaller, more personal and look less technological. But it won’t disappear altogether.

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