DARPA describes vision of wearable computing

Oct. 1, 1998
WASHINGTON - When officials of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., began looking into wearable computing back in the early 1990s, the primary applications were in repair and maintenance of complex military equipment while in the field.

By Chris Chinnock

WASHINGTON - When officials of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., began looking into wearable computing back in the early 1990s, the primary applications were in repair and maintenance of complex military equipment while in the field.

The idea was to plug the wearable into equipment over a MIL-STD 1553 bus interface, run diagnostics, and repair the equipment. Interactive electronic technical manuals would be on the wearable computer, and wireless communications would enable the operator to order replacement parts via the World Wide Web.

Such a capability - essentially field triage for damaged or malfunctioning equipment - would enable a technician to decide quickly if a tank could be repaired and returned to battle, or if it needed to be towed.

These first wearables featured voice-activated, body-worn computers and head-mounted displays. While studies showed their benefits, the way people interacted with the wearables was a little awkward.

"People felt uncomfortable talking to the computer," says Dick Urban, deputy director of the electronic technology office at DARPA. "They would cleverly cross their arms and use the mouse to get information, so they would not have to talk to the device." There was a cultural barrier that was inhibiting the use of such a novel computing platform.

Maintenance and repair remains a viable opportunity for wearables, but designers are reconsidering the form factors. Designers now are building head-mounted displays to be ergonomic and fashionable, and users can back up voice-activated navigation with a touch interface on a flat-panel display.

As awareness of the wearable platform grew, other groups became interested - first, leaders of the U.S. Army and Air Force, then the Navy and special operations personnel. Now, even leaders of the U.S. Marine Corps and military police have applications for wearable computers.

One example involves combat air controllers, who typically follow rangers into airfields shortly after soldiers capture the areas. They must quickly set up communications, coordinate landings, and unload aircraft on the field under cover of darkness. This environment is well suited to the wearable.

With all of these new applications, DARPA officials began looking at wearables from a systems point of view. Given that infantrymen, commandos, and even military mechanics carry lots of electronic gear - often with common processors, batteries, and displays - a new philosophy developed that envisioned a wearable platform that consolidated much of their capability. Specifically, the notion of wearables invites the consolidation of global positioning system receivers, radios, and other electronic tools.

"The idea is to build a multi-functional wearable platform that can sense, compute, and communicate," Urban says. He notes that commercial wearable PC manufacturers are moving in that direction, but portable digital assistant-class devices are also evolving toward that type of functionality. As an example, he points to smart bar code readers that can wirelessly communicate with in-store databases. "Eventually, such devices should be able to tell you if you are supposed to have more of something on the shelf, which empowers the person to make decisions in the field," notes Urban.

Since DARPA does not know what combinations of sensing, computing and communications are feasible and practical for various situations, they have decided to fund activities in three areas. One approach seeks to embed lots of low power processing capability on the human body. This is embodied in a program called the Advanced Humionics Processor, which has been awarded to Boeing Co. of Huntsville, Ala., and has resulted in a prototype module that is 4-by-2-by-.75 inches, and can process a billion instructions per second.

In the second approach, Urban wanted to explore minimizing local human processing and use the existing infrastructure in wireless communications to provide more interaction with data. Here, groups such as the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science in Cambridge, Mass., are working on voice-activated front ends to web sites so that users can interact with information using cell phones. Users can now call and get the weather in hundreds of cities on a new test server.

For more complex information that requires visual feedback, like finding the best flights between two cities, the idea is to equip cell phones with tiny microdisplays that can show web-based information - all navigated by voice. A demonstration that uses a desktop computer and monitor should soon be up for evaluation.

"We have talked to some of the major telecommunications companies about having high-information-content displays on cell phones, and they can understand the ability to view faxes, but there is limited understanding about using voice to interact with web-based information," Urban explains. "The Listen, Communicate and Show (LCS) Marine Corps program is intended to show the value of using the cell phone infrastructure for these types of applications."

The third DARPA approach aims at variations in-between these two extremes. One program under development by commercial wearable manufacturer ViA Inc. in Northfield, Minn., for instance, is to develop a Dick Tracy-style wristwatch device that can communicate and display information, but has a limited amount of processing power.

"The big hurdles for wearables are still energy sources and bandwidth," Urban says. "We are seeing limited sales of wearables now, but it will still be three to five years before the market takes off."

"The other issue," Urban says, "is learning how to configure a wearable for a certain application. We can use human factors psychologists to study situations or we can iterate with different wearable configurations until we get it right. We need to find a way to streamline this process of determining what is acceptable for people in different environments and applications."

Acceptance of wearables will take time. After all, it was once unusual to see people using cell phones or wireless microphones, but they now been embraced. Just give wearables a little more time to nullify the geek factor.

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