Geek Chic: The Dawning of Wearable Tech
by Yvonne Seng for Digital Living Today

If your digital stash (MP3 player, cell phone, and PDA) creates an unsightly bulge in your pockets, a fashion fix is on the way. In an inevitable move, electronics and fashion have put their opposing left and right brains together to produce "wearable electronics." Techno-skin may still be in the visionary stage, but the latest "wearables" are a grand improvement from MIT's last attempt at this genre (a monitor strapped to the forehead).

Levi-Strauss, the quintessential utilitarian clothier that dressed Californian gold miners in denim, is leading the wearable tech market. They've teamed with Philips Electronics to produce the ICD+ line of jackets, which were released in Europe, fall 2000. The four jackets include a MP3 player, cell phone (earphones and microphone are built into the collar) and a unified "remote" control (costs range from $600 to $900). No news yet on when they'll be available in the U.S.

Charmed Technology, a spin-off of MIT's Media Lab, serves up a sexy edge in their Brave New Unwired World fashion showcases. Basically, it's futuristic candy coating on today's still rather bulky mobile tech. In their Sydney 2000 show, Charmed introduced Surf Report: an outfit that communicates -- via wristbands -- to the solar panels in a surfer's body suit to adjust the suit's temperature.

New combinations of fiber, fabric and micro-circuitry are also turning up in prototypes for competitive sports and combat wear (and in their unholy offspring, extreme sports). For example, Philips envisions that future skiers will have GPS navigation, electronic ski passes and radio communications built into their clothing. Integrated fabric sensors are being manipulated to display and monitor everything from body temperature to pulse and blood stats. Philips suggests that soft fabric sensors could eventually cover the entire body and monitor an athlete's form, motion, and health.

The military and medical fields are also creating wearable electronics. The Department of Defense is experimenting with exoskeletons (or battlefield armor) that are smart, strong, and lethal to help soldiers communicate effectively, move quickly, lift large weaponry and leap to non-human heights and distances. This human performance augmentation promises to take war to superhero-like levels. A byproduct of this combat technology is the Smart Shirt, the world's first wearable motherboard that incorporates two-way sensing, monitoring and information processing technology into the fabric. It has all sorts of application in medicine for monitoring and communicating patient health.

Eventually we will have the option to wear our work applications. Xybernaut is already creating a niche market for professionals who need technical info on the fly. The MA IV Wearable PC includes a headset monitor, voice control, and arm-mounted keyboard that will give field surveyors, telephone line technicians, and law enforcement officers hands-free, voice activated access to data, as well as two-way communication with the home office. And the Xybernaut get-up is not all work and no play. You can also listen to MP3s, check your email, and play your favorite computer games while stuck in a traffic jam or waiting in line for a cheeseburger.

See also: