What’s in a handshake? If you press the flesh on a regular basis, you might deduce features of someone’s character in the slither of a limp, sweaty palm or in the capture of a vice-like grip. A knowing tickle on the palm in the process and you’ll have experienced bodily contact with a Mason, which may or may not be to your pleasure or advantage.
Soon, these gestures could be made to look very primitive indeed. At present, scientists at the US Massachusetts Institute of Tech- nology’s Media-Lab are working on means by which handshakers can exchange much more than guesswork about their new acquaintances. In place of business cards, information about a person’s name, address, occupation and business will be stored in a tiny computer, which in turn will be carried in a pocket or even in the sole of the user’s shoe. Then comes the spine-tingling bit. The computer will send personal data, in the form of tiny electric signals, using the user’s own skin as a transmission medium. MediaLab scientists have demonstrated how data could pass through the user’s handshake and be picked up by the other person’s body. Each person’s on-board mini-computer will then store the information received for a later reference.
The point of the exercise will be lost on those who enjoy the little ritual of exchanging business cards. It will also concern those who dread the prospect of humans evolving into computer components: parts, rather than the masters, of machines. But the MediaLab’s stated objective does have humans at heart. It wants to develop systems that will prevent humans becoming slaves to technology. It argues, laudably, that the physical dimensions of computers, for example, make too many demands on people: they are too large, too heavy, too obtrusive, and they limit our mobility.
Researchers on MediaLab’s five-year Things That Think (TTT) project say they want to weave technology invisibly into our lives. To that end they are aiming to deliver prototypes of computers that are worn about the body like personal accessories, rather than lugged about in a cumbersome satchel. These devices could sit in pockets, be built into footwear or worn as jewellery; but whatever form they take, the intention is that they should be as uninhibiting as possible to our freedom of movement.
Wearable technology is not such a new idea – think of wristwatches, hearing aids, even miners’ helmets. Indeed, the idea of wearable computers is not so unfamiliar. Star Trek watchers will recognise the concept, but will possibly have regarded it as outlandish as Mr Spock’s ears. But in the past few years, product designers have been giving it serious thought. A few years ago, NEC, the world’s fifth largest PC manufacturer, produced mock-ups of armour-like wearable computer terminals for use in outer space. However, the company says it is not working on any marketable products; the models were purely a design exercise.
Much more comfortable, and much closer to the spirit of wearable technology, were the soft-tech electronic product prototypes designed by Emilio Ambasz in 1992. This set of pocket TVs, phones, audio products and notebook computers were housed not in hard cases but in soft leather pouches, with the screens, batteries and circuit boards mounted on flexible membranes. Ambasz came to the conclusion that he was actually designing prosthetic body extensions that could develop their own character and last a lifetime.
Most memorable, perhaps because it now appears to have been the most prophetic, was the Cyberdesk proposal by LA-based designer Lisa Krohn. The Cyberdesk, which won worldwide coverage in the design press around the same time as Ambasz’s soft-tech range, was a “wearable information and communication port”, a kind of flexible office-as-ornament which could be draped around the neck like “an extension of the body or second skin”. A user would be able to make phone calls and exchange information with a remote computer or “home base”, dictating messages to it for printing or despatch by fax.
The Cyberdesk can only be 5 to 10 years away. At the BT Laboratories in Martlesham, engineers are refining the prototype of a wearable office. They call it the Office on the Arm, and it consists of a tiny, flip-screen Apple Mac computer, a phone, fax facility and access to the Internet, although BT is not sure whether the final product will have processing power of its own or simply communicate with a computer back at base, which would do all the processing. The latter requires much less power, and by using fewer batteries is lighter.
It is all encased in a hard, bulbous shell strapped to the forearm and includes a headset. “It’s not quite clothing but it is in that area,” says research engineer Roger Payne. “You dress in the morning and it’s with you all day. At the moment the item is a bit bulky, but as technology progresses these things will become smaller.”
It is hard to see how the Office on the Arm could get smaller as long as it requires physical operation by a human. Just 5cm across its diagonal, the screen requires a magnifying glass facility to zoom in on text. In addition, BT has yet to work out the best way to input information. Strapping a qwerty keyboard with keys large enough to press with a finger to your arm would mean a user would have to wear a kimono in order to fit the thing up their sleeve. An abbreviated stenographer-type keyboard would demand that users learn an entirely new skill. Voice-recognition software is the most likely alternative, but the best systems are still not fast enough to interpret normal speech. And, as Payne points out: “If you can imagine everyone on a train trying to talk to their computers, it could get quite noisy and confusing.”
Shrinking technology to this size creates new sets of problems and hardware issues. But this is just the easy bit, says Dr Chris Baber of the University of
Birmingham’s Ergonomics Information Research Centre. Baber has just completed a book on new generations of computer input devices. “They do seem largely unresolved because a lot of the computer systems we’re dealing with – and the BT Office on the Arm sounds like a good example – are based on current generation computer technology. So the idea of simply shrinking a desktop-type display to fit on a wristwatch sounds to me the wrong way of going about things. What would be required would be a new way of representing information, a new metaphor that you can use to capture these commands and tasks.”
BT is still experimenting with different formats. The product at present, admits Payne, is “a bit Robocop-ish”. When BT Labs head Peter Cochrane travelled on a train with a screen clipped to his spectacles, people around him got up and walked away.
Less frightening to strangers would be another MediaLab concept of more discreet electronic units scattered about one’s person – a computer in one pocket, a phone in another, a bracelet as an input device – which could communicate wirelessly. In other TTT projects, researchers are developing sensor systems that can interpret subtle gestures, such as the wave of a hand, and command electronic machines to act on these. Not just for couch potatoes who can’t be bothered with the remote control, these devices could help people with limited speech or movement to be better understood.
Although some would argue that computers have already permeated our lives too much, the promise of technology that disappears into our clothes and furniture is alluring. The catch is that we may have to put up with a few Robocops in suits before we get there.