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Wearable Computing; Where it Came From, Where it is, and Where it is Going – Part 1

by on08 May 2013 2828 times
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Wearable computers have been a dream of many for a long time. The idea of this type of device goes much farther back than the computer itself and can been seen in comics and science fiction movies and books. Some examples of the gadgets are Dick Tracy’s two-way communicator wrist watch, Michael Knight’s Communicator/Computer watch from the TV Series Knight Rider and of Course Buzz Lightyear’s wrist computer. Ok so that last one was not really a good example, but you can see that there is no shortage of examples out there. Still, even with these examples we have not really reached the level where we have true wearable computing; we are getting close and some of the devices that are out on the market are impressive, but we are not there just yet.

We intend to explore the history behind these concepts as well as how technology has moved toward the goal of true wearable computing devices in a series of articles and reviews of some of the products that you can buy today. We will also cover some of the hurdles that need to be overcome before we can see this goal. Let’s kick things off with a walk down the idea of portable computing and what helped to make this not only a reality, but a part of our everyday lives.


Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact -
Technological inspiration comes from many sources, but one of the most common sources is actually science fiction. Books, movies and television shows have sparked the imagination of different generations of scientists and researchers. No one can deny that we are now seeing some of the technology that only existed in books and movies spring into life in front of us. The idea of a smartphone when I was a kid was nothing more than a fantasy, the same as the idea of having a computer in your house was.

However all of this changed around the end of the 1970’s, once the microprocessor was introduced. The PC hit the market and there was no turning back. At the time, most of the computers released were very primitive and were only capable of performing a few functions. They were also not portable at all, at least not until the Osborne One was released in 1981. The Osborne One was the first truly portable computer available on the consumer market. Of course, it was very heavy and the size of a suitcase, but you could take it with you if needed. The Osborne One also did not have an internal battery so you were still tethered to the wall for power, but it did herald the beginning of portable computing.

In 1982, Bill Gates and Kazuhiko Nishi began working on a concept for a small battery operated computer using an LCD screen, which they showed to Radio Shack. This concept turned into the TSR-80 Model 100 and the pace accelerated from there, with multiple companies joining in to compete in this new market.

Even though the laptop computer was officially out there were limitations to it. Sure, you had your data available and you could technically work where you wanted, but you more often than not tethered to a location for internet or network access. These new laptops were still not very portable and like the first computers were primitive and not very powerful. We were on the move now, but still had to stop to reach out and connect.

Fortunately for millions of people languishing with their laptops tied to an Ethernet cable the idea of wireless data and voice communication came along to set them free. Believe it or not Wireless communication had its origins in 1985 when the frequencies and bands used in modern wireless products were released for open use by the FCC in the US. Unfortunately it took about 10 years for anyone to make this new technology commercially viable and we did not see the first consumer grade WiFi products until the mid to late 1990’s. Now we had portable computers and we were not tied down to our desks with wires, still we were not there yet. We were still stuck in pools of connectivity for our access to the internet which was growing in popularity and speed. This is where cellular (mobile voice and data) technology came into play.

Mobile telecommunication goes back to the 1940s in many places. AT&T had one of the first mobile communication networks in the US in 1947 when they had one hundred towns on their mobile network however these phones were installed in cars and not the cellular devices we think of today. The first modern portable phone was released in 1973 by Motorola and had a whipping 30 minutes of talk time and no data at all, you only got voice. We did not get that luxury with our phones until the 1990s which led to the world’s first smart phone the IBM Simon which was launched in 1993 (long before the iPhone).

While these different technologies were building there was another smaller movement that was just as important to today’s modern mobile computing experience and this was the PDA or Personal Digital Assistant. As the amount of information we needed to keep track of grew professionals and consumers were looking for better methods to store and access all of it. This is where the PDA came in. The first PDA was launched in 1984 by Psion and was called the Organizer. Apple later coined the term PDA when showing off their Newton at CES in 1992. This was followed by the IBM Simon (1994) that combined the cellular phone and the PDA and the Nokia 9000 Communicator in 1996 which became the best-selling PDA in the world for a number of years. Other companies such as Palm further refined and built upon the concept of the PDA making them into their own new computing market.

Now we have reached a time when the lines between these devices are blurring. The desktop PC, the laptop/notebook, Tablet, Smartphone, and even console games are all blending into one item in terms of marketing and even technology. Consumers are demanding smaller and smaller computing devices so that they can remain connected at all times no matter where they are and computer manufacturers are fighting to build the technology and products to meet this demand.

On the CPU side you have Intel, AMD and ARM all working to reduce the physical size of their processors while maintaining high performance but low power consumption. Memory manufacturers are also shrinking their component sizes which in turn allows for more storage in a smaller space. On top of all of this we are seeing leaps in display technology that allows for staggeringly small touch screens that still have great resolution. These leaps have allowed companies like I’m Spa, ConnecteDevice, Casio, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, and yes Apple to explore the world of wearable computing.

Of the companies that are diving into this new arena Samsung, Microsoft, Google, and Apple are lagging far behind. The others already have products on the market some of them into their second generation (as with the I’m Watch). We will be taking a look at the I’m Spa I’m Watch and the ConnecteDevice Cookoo. These are devices that are available to the consumer right now (Sony and Casio have them as well) while the big four (Microsoft, Apple, Google and Samsung) are only considering entering the fray and do not have products ready for launch.

In other words the wearable computing market is just as wide open as the PC market was in its infancy. The next couple of years will be the formative and deciding years for how these products will work and who sets the standards Right now none of the available (or planned) products can stand on their own and require a connection to a phone or other Bluetooth enabled device making them much like the PDA was before IBM dropped in the ability to make calls on one.

As we continue our coverage of this new (well relatively new) class of device we will look at not only what we have available, but also what needs to be added or developed for these products to continue to grow. We will also dive deeper into some of the technologies that came before and enabled these products to be brought to life.

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Last modified on 08 May 2013
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