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Wearable technology could be next consumer fad

Research from MIT has taken wearable computing to a new level, which could for the first time pose a commercial alternative to other mobile devices

As if the mobile industry didn't have enough woes, another threat is looming on the horizon from the cyber labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wearable computing has long been regarded as at the wackier end of the technology visionary scale, but for research scientist Steven Schwartz working at the Media Lab at MIT the idea of wearable computers overtaking mobile phones is a no-brainer.

"This will deconstruct the cell phone. This is hot and disruptive," he says of the tiny device he has built into spectacles and connected to a network of circuit boards built into a string vest worn under his suit. The advantage the system has over traditional mobile phones is that it projects an image as big as a TV screen to users wearing the custom-built eyepiece, whereas phones remain constrained to the physical dimensions of the mobile phone screen.

MIThril, as the wearable circuitry is dubbed, has been designed not to allow users to read email or surf the Web -- although both are possible -- but with the loftier aim of giving them control of their environment. Designed by Schwartz' PhD student Richard DeVaul, the wearable contains a low power microprocessor designed by UK chip firm ARM and a set of circuits connected by Ethernet.

DeVaul is in no doubt that his invention will empower users in ways the mobile in their pockets can never do. "The cellphone is fundamentally broken," he says. "[It] can ring at any moment... What we need is a cellphone that will know when not to disturb me and to change its profile based on where I am or what I'm doing."

With global positioning technology and infrared tagging it is by no means technologically unfeasible to create such a smart mobile but building this into a phone would make it far larger and power-hungry, he explains.

So enter the cyber suit and the eyepiece -- dubbed the Memory glasses. "They can remind me to get a pint of milk when I pass the grocery store," says DeVaul of one of its more mundane applications. With the whole of the world wide web just beyond the users eyes though the suit fulfils a more fundamental role in empowering users. "You could walk past someone else wearing such a device and find out that you share an interest. In face to face social communication it could prompt you of someone's name. I could go to a Linux exhibition and find the person with the exact expertise I need," explains DeVaul.

The comparative shopping that consumers can already do on the Net can be launched from your clothes in the shops themselves says Schwartz. "That could be the killer application -- terminator goes shopping," he jokes.

Of course, the technology could also raise privacy concerns to a new level, since it will collect an unprecedented amount of the wearer's personal information.

Although DeVaul has successfully worn the suit on a trip from New York to Boston without eliciting any strange looks, neither envisages that the suit -- which has so far been worn by less than a hundred people -- will reach the high street in its current state. Instead the wires will be embedded into the fabric and the components will be detachable via Velcro fastenings. The project is currently being made available over the Web in the form of a kind of do-it-yourself cyber kit, complete with information on the software and hardware and even a sewing pattern for how to attach the gear to your garments.

For those not convinced of their wearable computing DIY skills, Schwartz believes some form of wearable computer will be commercially available within the next five years.

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