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International Symposium on Wearable Computers '97

Conference format

This was a two day conference held at MIT starting on 13th October. A few statistics: there were 400 attendees, including 40 press representatives, 20 papers presented in a single stream, 15 posters, 4 invited speakers and about ten product stands.


Attending this conference you get the impression that Wearable Computing is still in its infancy: there were many aerial wearing boys-with-toys and other such techno-eccentrics and a real dearth of papers looking to unify the area by establishing broader research themes. On the other hand the unexpectedly high attendance including many industry representatives suggests that this is an area about to take off.

The main players

Currently the area is mainly funded by DARPA and indeed some of the longest running and most impressive applications were in the millitary area. Dominant universities appear to be MIT, CMU, Columbia, Georgia Tech and Toronto.

Conference emphasis

Conference papers emphasised different vertical application areas more than general-purpose wearable computers. This is inspite of the predominance of cyborgs with general purpose devices and university research based on generic platforms from manufacturers such as Phoenix and Via. This may explain why the area still appears relatively undirected: perhaps Wearable Computing is best utilised as an enabling technology for diverse vertical application areas. Vertical areas covered were: medical applications, computer-based training, CSCW, PIM, military applications, navigation systems and support for people with disabilities.

As well as divisions according to vertical application area, computers were also divided according to physical versus mental extension aspirations. The "physical-extensionists" talked of "wearable computers being eudamonic" [Steve Mann - impenetrable phrase] or of "humanotics" [DickUrban - cheesy phrase!] and emphasised the potential that comes from having the whole user environment as one big media stream that can be monitored twenty-four hours a day! The "mental-extensioninsts" (HP and Roz Picard) emphasised interpreting the environmental data in order to deduce the mental state of users. HP emphasised the potential of wearable computers as the next generation personal computers: "ultra-personal computers".


Chris Thompson from Georgia Tech made a good case for wearable computing in the area of computer-based learning, emphasising that the wearable computer allows "learning on demand" according to specific need, opposed to class-room-based, pre-scheduled learning.

Mark Billinghurst from the University of Washington made a good case for wearable computers in CSCW, emphasising that wearable computers allow users to blend real and computer-based forms of interaction, achieving a new feeling of "seamlessness".

Rehmi Post from MIT introduced a range of technologies that sounded good initially, but tended to disappoint. Personal area networks based on capactive coupling for intra-body and touching-person-to-person communication were disappointing because they only go up to a few kbps. Smart-fabric where passive circuitry can be woven into clothing is a nice idea but in practice this was just wiring woven into material (passive components were hung off conventional PCBs). Intrabody power transmission is still at an early stage. Smart buses were mentioned in passing.

Stephen Fickas from the University of Oregon raised the issue of how to perform late-binding to resources in the local environment. The solutions were rather too reminiscent of standard distributed computing systems to generate much interest, but at any rate this is a crucial area.

Rick Satava gave an entertaining talk on medical applications - partly illustrating the value of biometric measurement for personal healthcare and millitary applications - and partly speculating on the benefits available when we can completely encode an individual's body as bits and then project processed images of that person.

A guy from MicroOptics spoke about the see-through i-glass displays. These look like Alan Whicker glasses with a matchbox-sized unit glued to one eye. They overlayed a quarter-VGA monochrome image onto the left eye. The image was rather small - equivalent to a five inch diagonal at arms length. They are working towards an eight inch diagonal, full VGA, true colour version. The glasses requried 6mm thick lenses, but were still remarkably light. Their technology allowed for prescriptions including astigmatism. The manufacturing process was apparently simple and glasses prices would fall from $2,000 to maybe $500 over time.

A guy from BT gave an advertising pitch suggesting that we should aim towards a future where through wearable computers we would all be interconnected all the time - who's paying the call charges?

Dave Mizell from Boeing gave a suprisingly entertaining talk about using augmented reality to assist in the construction of wiring bundles for aircraft - first making it clear how much the technoloy was needed by boeing and then describing how this nine-year project has evolved alongside improving underlying technology and reruns.

Roz Picard from MIT described "affective computers" that can sense the wearer's emotional state. There was an entertaining video of some test subjects being deliberately confused by a tester and this being successfully measured by a PC connected through some sensors attached to the subjects' foreheads.

Eric Lind from the US Navy described a GI "black box" vest that can sense where a soldier has been shot, at what angle, whether an artery was hit, or a bone, and how long the soldier has to live together with the soldier's position to within 3 metres. Pretty impressive - all based on a optic fibre mesh, microphone, wireless comms and GPS system.

Brad Rhodes from MIT presented a paper about making their "remembrance agent" context sensitive. At last.

I (Jim) presented our "Towards Situated Computing" paper. The presentation went off well, but as the last paper in the conference it drew no questions from the floor!. Afterwards PhilN was approached by loads of people with questions about the Pingers (can we have some?), even though this occupied only one out of twelve slides of the presentation! The other slides highlighted the role of situated computing for wearables and the importance of infrastructure to allow dynamic interconnection of the wearable platform to sensors and applications as well as local resources and remote servers.


Following the two day conference their was a one day symposium of invited celebrity speakers and a fashion show. Leonard Nemoy was embarrassing but then again so were quite a few others - initially entertaining. Mr Track-point from IBM (in charge of their notebook research) left us with the impression that IBM had no doubts that wearability was part of the future for notebooks and this seems like a far-cry from MCD.

The fashion show was fun - you had to be there. My fingers hurt - can I stop typing now?

This page last updated April 26, 2002
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