February 5, 2006

The Next Computing Platform, The Wearable Internet is Closer Than You Think!

Posted in innovate this!, Innovation at 11:42 am by scottmaxwell

Recently, I wrote a post on the issue of the computer screen size as my personal issue with the truly portable device formats. Today’s Boston Globe article “The next big thing: Tiny screens, way up close” made me connect the dots on a few developments that I believe will give us a new portable computing platform, the Wearable Internet, (at least for early adopters) within the next 2-3 years (perhaps sooner, as it is hard to give a point estimate).

Much has been written and discussed about wearable computers over the years (example here and some additional resources here), but until now it has been just a futuristic vision for me. The Globe article, along with some other recent experiences, has made it clear that some combination of companies will be coming out with a practical set of devices sooner than I would have previously thought.

The Components for the Wearable Internet…

From my vantage point, there are several components necessary for a truly wearable experience. Each is getting VERY close or is already here:

1. The wearable screen. I have investigated wearable screens a few times over the last 25 years, and each time have come to the conclusion that there is more work to do (the big issues are price, size, quality, and battery life). The Globe article made me realize that the advances in wearable screens are accelerating and that the move toward portable video (ala the Video Ipod) might help the innovators put more resources against getting there more quickly. (this is probably the single component that will determine how quickly the new platform becomes truly practical, at least for me). My sense is that I still will need a wired connection to the central processor for video, but, even if this is right, it is not an issue with making a practical wearable computer.

2. The wireless keyboard. I have had a wireless keyboard for several years now, so this is really a no brainer. My new Xbox 360 wireless controls also has reminded me that the wireless input device technology has no issues at this point. It seems to me that some combination of “thumb keyboards” and full size keyboards would be useful for several situations, although there are lots of possibly great developments that could lead to much better finger/hand input for the wearable computer. Allowing the Treo, Blackberry, or other PDA keyboard to communicate directly with the central processor would be useful.

3. The central processor. Again, already here in a lot of ways, although the power of the truly wearable computers is not to the level I would like (I don’t want a PDA connected to the Internet, but rather a fully functional laptop, perhaps without the DVD slot). I built a wearable computer for a master’s thesis 21 years ago with the then available technology, so there is no doubt in my mind that a manufacturer can take the current chip sets and put them into a smaller battery powered bundle (without a keyboard or screen…similar to the Mac Mini in concept). Worst case, I can use my laptop in my briefcase as the central processor, although it would not give me the geographic range that I am looking for longer term.

4. The Internet connection. I use a card in my laptop with a Verizon Internet service that costs about $60 per month for unlimited use. It works beautifully (Brad Feld and Robert Scoble have had similar experiences, Robert with Cingular). Manufacturers are already working on building the cards into the computers, so again no issues with easily getting a combination of Verizon and Wifi connection, depending on location (perhaps Wimax will come along as well, but the technology is here already and works great).

Other peripheral technologies such as location, voice I/O, and image capture are equally well developed, so there do not seem to be any issues standing in the way of this platform becoming a reality other than some straightforward engineering and getting to a set of components that are relatively easy to mix together to create the wearable bundle that most suits the user.

The evolution…

As with anything, there are many possible paths to getting here. One practical path is that the wearable screens continue to evolve (pushed by video players) and eventually people like me start hooking them along with a bluetooth keyboard and Verizon internet service into our laptops (the laptops then stay in the briefcase). Then, one of the laptop manufacturers (Apple, perhaps) comes out with a “wearable laptop” that is essentially a laptop without the screen, keyboard, or DVD slot, and includes a built in Verizon card)…it only takes off from there!

An alternative (parallel?) path is for users to start connecting the wearable screens to their PDAs and/or Ipods and for the PDAs to continue to evolve in processing power and internet connectivity until the laptops and PDAs converge into one.

Lots of other possible paths, but these two seem the most logical to me, at least at this point.

What are you going to do about it?

Ed Sim reminded us recently that “A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” If this is where the platform is going to be, where are you going to be?

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11 Comments »

  1. Why do I need a wearable computer? Why does it have to be wearable? I already have a PDA I carry with me all the time. What does a wearable computer offer that a PDA can’t?

    I think this is an interesting question.

  2. scottmaxwell said,

    Good question. Relative to a PDA, what I want is more computing power, more storage, high bandwidth internet connections, flexible input (thumb or full keyboard, for example, depending on the situation, and a optics of a larger screen size. thoughts?
    Scott

  3. Another way to phrase Captain’s question is What question does a wearable computer answer? Start with the requirements. I want flexibility, no power considerations, easy data entry, easy viewing and storage, and a really great phone. That might break down into 3 different products, or it could be one integrated product. It could be wearable; I can imagine gloves with flexible screens on the the back (top of the hand) so I can glance at secondary data quickly as I’m typing this. I can imagine power supplies for each component of an ‘aggregate device’, wear screen, input, sound, phone, etc are separate. When you separate them, you gain some weight advantages and can change power requirements accordingly. For instance, why should the phone suffer from power drain by the screen? separate the power sources. Or just get a really great phone and forget the other stuff 🙂

  4. Walter Scott said,

    OLED and PLED technology is growing fast and with the flexible nature of the screen could have big impacts. Remember the wrist watch only became popular in the 20th century.

  5. Christopher Sun said,

    OLEDS are the answer — flexible, thin and LOW POWER. Once longevity issues are solved (either via process materials improvements or analog driver trickery), there will be a new rush in development for wearable systems. Perhaps ive been watching too many sci-fi shows, but i envision a OLED+wifi wrist screen (think Leela’s minus the attitude) in the next few years.

  6. Walter Scott said,

    I would argue that a wearable computer is a PDA; similar to how the pocket watch turned into the wrist watch. I currently carry two devices, phone becuase I like the form factor and a Blackberry for email while on the road. I see this device becoming mulitple parts of one larger device. Gates talked about this in “The Road Ahead”. I would like to see one device that open my garage door, has GPS so when I get within 3 miles of my home it turns on the AC, has my insurance / medical records, credit card, etc. I don’t want to have to carry something that is Blackberry size, I want something that fits in my back pocket.

  7. Aaron McGowan said,

    Im a third year design student and for my final degree project im looking at OLED flexible screen technology and how it would work best in a wearable context. As well as the technology side of things, im looking at the user, considering issues such as where when and why a wearable screen might be needed. Positives of the OLED screen for wearable use are as stated before, they are light weight, low power consuming, flexible also very very thin and highly durable. There are three main ways OLEDs can function that i can see would be relavent, producing bright light, high quality screens and, slightly changing the architecture of the oled can also make it function as a solar pannel. I like the idea of breaking down an existing product but keeping all the same functions e.g a digital slr camera. Having a jacket that has a Flexible OLED screen on the cuff for viewing pictures, removing a need for a screen on the camera. Memory storage built into the coat itself possibly an inside pocket for this, removing the need for the camera body. Leaving just the lense, which could then be bluetooth enabled and re configured to take the picture and send the caption to the memory inside the jacket and display on the screen on the cuff. Just an idea but comments on possible uses as to where you could see a screen being incorporated for a pda or wearable internet would be great for my research.

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