Where is my wearable computer?

Wearable computers
should have been available by now. That, at least, is what some futurists would have us believe. Rapid development of portable electronics should have led to pocket-sized yet powerful computers. Yet we are approaching 2010 faster than is comfortable, and most wristwatches still just tell time. Where are the pocket computers, and are they coming anytime soon?

Today’s consumers insist on having instant access to our information web. They think it is becoming more and more important to them, and they’re high-technology consumers too, after all. For decades, business professionals have known about the advantages of easy access to information, and with the advent of cheaper portable devices, the average consumer can benefit from it, as well. Aside from the social ‘bling’ factor in possessing the latest or greatest gadget, truly useful wearable computers
may change our lives in ways not even science fiction writers can predict. Discovering new ways to use technology is what makes the journey so unique for each person. Just as the personal computer opened new doors for the consumer in the 1980s, we may be on the cusp of another revolution in computing: a portable one.

PDA market: who remembers?

The death of the PDA market back in 2004 sounded alarm bells in the high-technology industry. The lack of demand for portable Personal Digital Assistants caused the market to stall and manufacturers to look elsewhere for profits. While laptops have enjoyed a steady rise in sales in recent years, they are still not the pocket-portable devices of the future that many geeks dream of. So where, then, is the ‘magic’ device that will replace PDAs, laptops and other clunky devices to liberate computing from its wall-cords once and for all?

The rise of the cell phone is perhaps the biggest hope for wearable computers
to emerge in the next decade. This is a huge worldwide market, driven by sales that have topped a billion units per year according to a recent C|Net article. As in most industries, the most rapid development occurs with a large sales volume, meaning the industry spends more research and development dollars as a result. Given that cell phones have emerged as the dominant portable digital device of choice, it is natural to look at them as possible forerunners for future wearable computing devices.

The question of power

Yet battery life remains a critical issue. It is an inescapable fact that as manufacturers pack more features into a portable device, the more power it draws and thus the shorter the usable time between recharges. It is not uncommon for heavy cell users to have to recharge their phones every night, if not before day’s end. Given that new battery technology is lagging far behind device development, this will be a real hurdle to overcome in making wearable devices last for an entire day’s use, or longer.

Battery technology is even today based on principles almost a century old, with some refinements that have stretched the boundaries but not broken them. The most advanced types of battery on the market today are based on lithium-ion technology. It makes them light, rechargeable and long-lasting … to a point.

Size matters, and the sad fact is that current batteries
cannot provide the energy density needed to last for a full day’s use if they are to fit into cell-phone-sized devices. New power sources are on the horizon, though, including fuel cells that run on hydrogen as well as technologies that use nanomachines to create entirely new forms of miniature power sources. All of this is still in the early research stages, though. Still, various companies have touted their new prototype ‘replacements’ for current batteries
for years now – and failed to deliver them, year after year.

Hi-tech combines

Convergence is the buzzword right now in portable devices: combining three, four or five major functions into one. Hyundai announced a combo cell phone, MP3 player and camera in the form of a wearable watch in late 2007. Sadly, there has been no mention of the product since then, though. Still, many of the latest cell phones from Rogers and Telus all pack PDA-style features into ever-smaller packages. These powerhouses allow web browsing, e-mail, scheduling and more, in addition to regular phone features and MP3 capabilities. Yet again, we should note that battery life is measured in mere hours, and the cost of spare batteries
often deters users from purchasing extra ones to keep handy.

For those interested in following the rise of ‘true’ wearable devices, a useful resource is Andy’s Wearable Computing Resource. This site tracks various mobile trends and looks at some of the latest devices released. Fans of Dick Tracy’s ‘radio watch’ will just have to wait and see where current trends might lead to. Current cell phone ‘watches’ are similar to the first cell phones themselves: large, clunky and not that useful for everyday consumers. Given time and enough of a market, though, things might change drastically – much as early computers
moved from commercial labs and corporate uses to the home and everyday uses.

Where are we headed?

Finally, we should take a peek at where wearable computers may eventually end up. For more than 20 years now, a Canadian professor at the University of Toronto has been a pioneer in the wearable computer field. Dr. Steve Mann has used his engineering background to develop and improve the technology he has worn for decades. While most of us may stop short at implanting electrodes into ourselves, Dr. Mann considers it part and parcel of learning to integrate technology into your lives fully.

Looking at trends in the portable market, it is obvious that the rapid development and acceptance of the cell phone into everyday life over the past 20 years shows it is firmly entrenched in our lives. We have seen it grow from a tool of the business elite to a must-have device that anyone can afford. This illustrates the dramatic impact technology can have on modern society, showing that rapid change can come about through simple market demand and supply. The future of portable devices is firmly in the hands of the consumer, who will ultimately decide how and when wearable computers
will arrive. What the form they will take, and the uses they will be put to are topics still open to debate ... by you.