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In the 1990s, MIT researchers Thad Starner, Bradley Rhodes, and Steve Mann were the cyborg pioneers of wearable computing, augmenting their bodies with backpack computers, handheld keyboards, cameras, and eyeglasses embedded with displays. Now, thanks to continued miniaturization and ubiquitous wireless networking, wearable computing has emerged from the laboratory in the form of Google Glass, Sony’s SmartWatch, Fitbit, and a slew of other body-worn sensors. Recently, just the rumor of an Apple wristwatch computer made front page headlines. Wearable computing is increasingly blending into the fabric of our lives. And in the near future, that fabric will literally be laden with computation.
Here are three signposts pointing toward the future of wearable computing:
Several university laboratories are developing transistors — the building blocks of all computers — that are literally woven from cotton fibers. In a recent project led by Cornell University’s Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory, engineers coated cotton with gold nano particles and a conductive polymer layer. So far, they’ve only created simple circuits as a proof of concept. The first applications will likely be, say, clothing with chemical sensors for firefighters or shirts that measure vital signs. But according to Lab director Juan Hinestroza, “If you think about how many fibers you have in your T-shirt, and how many interconnections you have between the weft and the warp of the fabric, you could get pretty decent computing power.”
University of Illinois nano scientist John Rogers developed a method to print ultra-thin silicon circuits, like those on a computer chip, onto a highly-elastic surface that you can stick on your skin. Think of a temporary tattoo containing electronic components that are one-fifth the thickness of human hair. The possible uses of this are broad, ranging from a tiny patch that will detect when you need more sunscreen and alert you, to implantable (yes implantable) sensors that keep a constant vigil for infections inside the body. Rogers spun out a company called MC10 to commercialize the technology and has already partnered with Reebok on a forthcoming wearable device to track athletic performance.
DIY Wearable Electronics
Clothing — from knitting to sewing — has always been a hotbed of do-it-yourself culture, and wearable computing is no exception. Adafruit Industries’ FLORA is an inexpensive, open-source, tiny computer that acts as the brains for wearable electronics projects that you create and wear, such as a dress that glows differently depending on its environment or what can only be described as a “power tie.” As always, the most creative applications of wearable computing will likely emerge when makers and artists get their hands on the technology.
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