Just imagine you are steadily connected to email and have instantaneous access to the Web, wherever you are. Or with a simple voice command or a few keystrokes, you are able to accomplish your business from home or work.
The introduction of the Palm III and the emergence of Microsoft CE driven palmtop PCs are just the beginning.
The future, according to many industry and military computer researchers, is in the computers you wear. The hardest part isn't in creating a smaller computer, but, in making them easy to use.
The wearable computer market is evolving from a research and development start-up environment, to a product and customer oriented market. Wearable computer vendors are now able to focus on customer needs rather than solely on technology development. Designs in the market place have become small, light and powerful enough to begin attracting the attention of many different market segments.
Companies pursuing the technology are finding powerful niche applications where the drawbacks of wearable computer technology high cost, bulky equipment and speech recognition capabilities go beyond the specific advantages. For example, Boeing Company has developed a wearable computer for aeroplane maintenance operations.
The user straps on the CPU with a belt and wears a head-mounted display unit that has a microphone, earphones and a see-through miniature display. He or she then crawls under and through aircraft, testing and repairing components.
Since technicians are already accustomed to carrying equipment either in hand or strapped to their body, the inconvenience of the computer components is accepted as a reasonable trade off for the instant delivery of up to date manual information at the time and place it is needed. However, wearable computer makers acknowledge that office workers are unlikely to wear helmets or strap boxes to their waists.
IBM is working on a clip-on computer that utilises a tiny, headset-mounted display and responds to voice commands.
The prototype IBM wearable PC, a Thinkpad 560X shrunk to the footprint of a Palmpilot, complete with 340 MB of storage and 64 MB of EDO RAM runs IBM's ViaVoice speech software and is light enough to clip to a belt.
Weighing in at only 10.5 ounces, including battery, the palm sized computer prototype incorporates IBM's new microdrive disk and can also use a small, hand held Trackpoint unit for input.
"Initially, we think the wearable PC will find applications in business. I think you'll see people using these at aircraft flight gates, repairing your copier or tuning your car's engine," said Russell Budd, the IBM researcher who leads the virtual display work at IBM's Research Lab.
"Eventually, well, who originally thought people would wear radios, tape and compact disk players," he said.
The US military, as in many technical advances, has led the way in computer miniaturisation. The armed forces have already used wearable computers for maintenance tasks, and field tested similar computers for combat soldiers.
"With each step, we want to take what we've learned and make things smaller," said Ellison Urban, who heads the Small Modules program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Some of the currently DARPA funded projects include wearable tactical information assistants (wearable which gives the user maintenance, immigration and naturalisation information), wrist interactive devices (wristwatch that can communicate and display information) and combat management systems (a fully configured wearable PC into a soldier's clothing).
The military's latest program, spearheaded by Boeing, involves the use of "stacked chip" technology made by California based Irvine Sensors Corporation. According to Urban, different chips can be placed in stacks of up to 50, creating a one-half-inch cube. Because the chips are so close together, they take up less power, generate less heat and can fit in a small space.
The package, Boeing said, will include hookups for microphones and speakers, as well as some form of communications device, a modem of sorts. Previous military prototypes linked wearable computers to military radios, cellular phones and even global positioning system satellites.
And Micro Optical has created a system that projects an image onto a pair of specially-designed eyeglasses. The glasses, which are infused with liquid crystal, give the illusion of a free-floating full size, monochrome screen, without impairing the user's vision.
The company's Integrated Eyeglass Display includes a concealed electronic display. When the user wears the glasses and turns the display on, an image of a video or computer screen appears at a distance of several feet. A focus adjustment allows the user to place the image at a comfortable distance.
"The glasses provide the user with a convenient, portable means for carrying a display that may be connected to a notebook computer, wearable computer or other electronic device," said Tom Holzel, vice president of sales and marketing at Micro Optical. “This system can be used in a variety of commercial, medical and military applications."
New research from International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates the US demand in the industrial, manufacturing, military, government and medical sectors will drive growth in the wearable PC marketplace in the US, pushing the potential market opportunity to $600 million by 2003.
Because of the growing demand and the compelling applications in the manufacturing and military sectors, wearable computing rates 34 (on a scale of 1-100 with 100 being most viable) on the IDC Emerging Technology Markets Commercial Viability index.
"Wearable computing will start to play a key role in cost cutting and increasing productivity for many industrial users in the next 5 to 10 years," said Christine Arrington, program manager for IDC's Emerging Technology Markets group and author of IDC's report, Alternative Computing Device Report Series: Wearable Computing.
"The true mobility of wearable computing will expand PC opportunities to markets and job functions PCs have not been able to penetrate up until now," she said.
According to IDC, markets where it will excel include vehicle maintenance users, particularly large vehicles such as aircrafts which will find that a wearable computer can cut down on the need to refer to paper-based manuals and increase accuracy on the job. Medical workers will have immediate access to records, reference material and with communications capabilities, other medical resources.
Arrington explained that the biggest challenge to the wearable computing industry is user education. Although many very useful applications will be developed, the majority of end users will remain concerned about the form factor.
"How do you use it" and "what do you need it for? will be the questions that wearable vendors will continue to hear for the foreseeable future. Cultural obstacles will also hamper the effort to expand the market, particularly with consumers, she said.
"The applications to drive consumer interest are several years away," Arrington said. "And fear of the 'geek' factor will be a huge obstacle for some time, meaning that wearable computing is a commercial application for the next few years."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Wearable Computer project has a number of different ideas on input/output devices. In MIT's "Lizzy" prototype , a "chording" keyboard is used for input. The keyboard has only 12 keys, which are punched in patterns to create specific commands.
Other wearable computers, such as Xybernaut's 133P model, use voice-activate commands. While such a system keeps both hands, free the voice recognition software is somewhat memory-intensive, not to mention that speaking is sometimes impractical in combat situations.
A more futuristic concept at MIT's Media Laboratory is being funded by Reebok. In this case, the computer is in the form of an insole that slips into a sneaker. One rationale for this approach is the opportunity to generate power through the act of walking. A small specially designed generator is able to derive power from the movement of the foot. A fashion accessory actually solves a crucial problem for all portable computer equipment, the need for sustained power.
Yet battery technology is currently the weakest link in the entire wearable-computer thrust. Even as they shrink and get lighter, they eventually run down and need to be recharged. The problem is intensified by the fact that wearable applications require the CPU to be continuously running. Current technology can sustain computer operation for a maximum of four hours. Right now, Xybernaut and other companies, such as Interactive Solutions and ViA, are already marketing wearable PCs, with prices starting at around $5,000. Unlike the cutting edge projects above, these computers are larger, though still portable, with processing power generally equal to a low end home computer. Most include audio visual headsets or mini keyboards and screens.
The future, according to many industry and military computers researchers, is in the computers you wear. And that future is, in some ways, already here.
Cotton seedling freezes to death as Chang'e-4 shuts down for the Moon's 14-day lunar night
Fortnite easily out-earns PUBG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018
Meteor showers as a service will be visible for about 100 kilometres in all directions
Saturn's rings only formed in the past 100 million years, suggests analysis of Cassini space probe data
New findings contradict conventional belief that Saturn's rings were formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago