Our Wireless And Wearable Future

In the big scheme of Internet things, the PC promises to be akin to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s infamous 12 seconds. Brief, but historic. Just as we look fondly back at the 1902 Glider as the precursor to modern commercial aviation, our grandchildren might look back at the PC as the place we first engaged with the Internet.

Certainly in our lifetime, the PC as we know it will all but disappear.

It’s a safe prediction. Chips are decreasing in size and price, allowing manufacturers to place them in everything from cars to clothes. Every major hardware manufacturer you know by name is moving beyond the desktop, prototyping wireless Internet appliances and wearable computers. And consumers seem to be genuinely interested in gadgets that offer ubiquitous Internet connectivity and the potential to access information anytime, anywhere.

Just how big the push from PCs toward Internet appliances and wearable computing is can be found in the recent $1 billion cross-licensing agreement between IBM and 3Com. The deal is about sharing patents that will enable both companies to develop new products faster. The spearhead behind the agreement is 3Com’s president and CEO, Bruce Claflin, formerly head of IBM’s PC business.

Home API Working Group, a consortium made up of Honeywell, Microsoft, Intel, Philips, Compaq, and Mitsubishi, is working together to develop standard APIs to access, control, and interconnect the capabilities of next-generation wireless digital devices.

Oracle is working on Project Panama, a server that will enable mobile service providers to deliver web content to wireless appliances.

MIT, considered among the world’s leaders in “wearable technology,” recently announced a partnership with Motorola to establish a Digital DNA Lab. The Media Lab at MIT is deeply involved in research surrounding “smart” technologies that link “invisible” networks to toys, household appliances, clothes, and other electronic gadgets.

And there are many other entities getting involved in the wireless and wearable arena. Here’s a quick look at what the future holds:

Future: Handheld Computing

Promise: Smart PDAs and cellphones that offer web-delivered content, such as real-time stock quotes, headline news, sports scores, weather reports, maps and charts, and email. Much of the promise resides in the third-generation application environment, or G3, a technology that promises to deliver the bandwidth and speed required for wireless streaming video and audio.

While G3 is still about three years away, an interim solution, known as the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), is underway to deliver data to wireless environments at speeds around 100Kbps, which is not fast enough to deliver multimedia, but is quick enough to send and receive email, and to deliver information such as stock quotes and sports scores.

Players: In the PDA market, 3Com (Palm OS) and Microsoft (CE) are the major players. 3Com’s Palm is easy to use, lasts hours on batteries, and has a significant cool factor. 3Com has also entered into strategic alliances with IBM to produce PDAs, and with Qualcomm to produce smart phones. Microsoft, which has partnered with Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Philips, has Windows CE devices that offer Pentium-level processing power, color screens, and software support for Office products.

Yahoo has already established content partnerships with major telecommunications companies, offering SprintPCS My Yahoo and PageNet My Yahoo. In the cellular phone market, the 7100 Series Cellular Phone by Nokia promises to deliver flight and restaurant information through a relationship linking IBM and SABRE via WAP technology. Nokia claims that by 2004, more mobile phones will be connected to the Internet than PCs and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

Other companies are combining the cellphone and PDA. Ericsson’s R380 features a touchscreen browser with email notification and voice dictation. 3Com’s Palm VII allows “Web Clipping” from Internet-content providers such as E*Trade and Yahoo. Ericsson and Nokia have prototypes using the G3 protocol that promise videoconferencing, smart home hookups, and e-commerce functionalities.

Picture: Using your cellphone to access email during rush hour traffic, then calling into a home network to turn on your air conditioner before you get home. Logging on to your PDA to order concert tickets, then checking for nearby restaurants. Using your cellphone’s or PDA’s voice recognition system to take notes, then emailing them to a colleague.

Prediction: WAP-driven devices in late 1999 to mid-2000. G3-driven devices by 2004.

Future: Wearable PCs

Promise: Hands-free, heads-up computing devices that enable real-time remote collaboration are available today. The Fairfax, Virginia-based Xybernaut manufactures the Mobile Assistant IV, a fully equipped, networked, ultra-light wearable PC. The MA IV consists of a belt-worn CPU, a color VGA head-mounted display suspended in front of either eye, an optional wrist-mounted flat-panel touchscreen display or keyboard, a battery pack, and IBM’s ViaVoice speech-recognition software. It’s used in industries such as manufacturing, law enforcement, retail, and food services, where employees are required to do inventory, maintenance, inspections, and other types of data collection.

The next generation of wearables is on the way. The Tokyo arm of Big Blue is promising to have a wearable PC in the shops by 2000 with which you will be able to surf the web, and read and send email, as well as perform other standard computer activity. IBM says it has built six working prototypes of the wearable PC.

Much like MA IV, the screen will be an LCD microdisplay worn in front of one eye, while the mouse will be like a small handheld pointing and tracking device with a microphone built in for the ViaVoice recognition system. The unit’s 340Mb disk drive is the same size as a Walkman, but has connections for a full-size keyboard and monitor and weighs just 10 ounces. IBM states that the microdisplay will appear to be the same size as a 17-inch monitor, but will also be transparent.

Future applications of wearable PCs extend to “smart clothing,” the idea that computer chips can be embedded in our person, used without much conscious thought or effort. Head-set displays would be embedded in eyeglasses, and handsets in wrist watches, pins, brooches, and other accessories. There’s even a prototype for “smart underwear” that allows the wearer to change the temperature in a room, and wired “smart shoes” that record heart rates.

MIT’s “Souvenir Project” is developing wearable clothing that serves as minicameras, taking photographs, video, and recordings in unobtrusive ways.

Players: Xybernaut, IBM, MIT Media Lab.

Picture: Accessing and inputting vital information regardless of location. Recording surroundings and experiences without conscious effort. Physical statistics continuously monitored and delivered to healthcare professionals.

Prediction: Wearables by mid-2000. Widespread commercial applications for “smart clothing” by 2005.

Life At Internet Speed

As our everyday lives accelerate at Internet speed, our time spent on tasks diminishes. As our workforce becomes ever more mobile, our need for ubiquitous information is increasingly important. The next logical step is to develop technologies that make our lives easier, to create information sources that extend beyond the desktop and meet us no matter where we are.

Through the promise of wireless communications and instant delivery of information and services, soon there will be a time when a single, wireless, Internet-connected device will provide nearly every bit of information we need. Without leaving home, we’ll have access to a personalized offering of content we want delivered and products we want to buy.

PDA, cellphone, button-fly jeans. In the future, it won’t be a matter of what we can instantly learn or buy, but how we choose to have it all.

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