Charles Arthur On Technology

'The next big thing for communication on the move: a computer you can wear on your sleeve'

Spitting Image, the current affairs rubber puppet programme of the 1980s (and what a strange phrase that is), may turn out to be responsible for a computing breakthrough, one that has been promised for years yet never before quite come to fruition.

Spitting Image, the current affairs rubber puppet programme of the 1980s (and what a strange phrase that is), may turn out to be responsible for a computing breakthrough, one that has been promised for years yet never before quite come to fruition.

Here's how. Two of the people who worked on the programme were challenged to come up with a cloth that could conduct electricity. (It had something to do with being able to animate more bits of the puppets.) After a lot of work with Brunel University, they finally developed something that fitted the bill: soft, malleable, yet able to conduct electricity through a layer of conductive fibre built into the material. Unfortunately, the programme had long since finished, but their product had other potential uses. So in 1998 they set up their company, Eleksen, and six years later things are starting to pick up: we're getting close to "wearable computing", one of the many holy grails of computing (along with the fast, cheap secure PC).

You know what wearable computing is, because you've laughed at fashion and computer designers' attempts to implement it, usually involving Christmas lights sewn into a Bacofoil outfit and a computer screen stuck on their head.

This illustrated the problem with past versions of this idea, which were twofold. First, the important bits of computers, the processor and associated circuitry, had to be housed in robust boxes, because the circuit boards used were stiff, and generated lots of heat. Secondly, they were heavy, because things such as power supplies and the fans needed to remove the heat all weighed, considerably; plus the circuit boards, of course. To add to those two, you usually need a screen to view what effect your interaction with the computer is having. Plus, where would you put the keyboard? On a shelf attached to your chest?

The problem of portability for computers has long since been solved. A mobile phone or handheld computer has as much power as a laptop of five years ago and the handheld can have many more facilities, such as wireless LAN connectivity and Bluetooth and the ability to make a phone call. That will fit in any pocket you have spare.

What Eleksen has solved is the input side. Its material can be used to detect contact at any point; so you could print the keys of a keyboard onthe material, and link it to a computer, and, given suitable software in between, when you press the points on the cloth where the keys are printed, the computer will recognise those as key presses. Or you could print sliders, or dials, or any sort of input shape you'd like, and when you move a finger over those, the system will recognise that. It's no heavier than a waterproof material such as Gore-Tex, and can be rolled up very tightly; one of the first Eleksen products was a roll-up keyboard for Palm handhelds.

Among those interested is the Ministry of Defence, which can see potential for the military (in that far-sighted way that people who spend all day wondering what to do with your money can). Someone in the front line could enter data on a "keyboard" printed on the sleeve of his or her combat jacket.

That leaves the output side. Screens are bulky, and despite plenty of promising advances, such as the flexible materials unveiled by HP this year, nobody has yet cracked the problem of making a truly flexible screen.

But why should we need a visual output? Speech-based input is still limited. It doesn't work well in noisy environments, or with a wide range of vocabulary from unknown people, but computer-generated speech is improving. You could have a Bluetooth headset linked to the computer taking your "soft" input and get all the answers you'd ever need. Want to know where you are? In future you could press the GPS button on your sleeve and get an address read into your ear. Want to hear that urgent e-mail while you drive or walk? Press the "yes" button when your handheld says it's come in.

Wearable computing is going to envelop and alter our lives in subtle ways over the next 10 years. And all because someone wanted an even better way to make a rubber slug depicting the education secretary of the day even more revolting.

http://www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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