Bridging the Gap between Research and Industry in Wearable Computing

Wearable Computing emerged in the late 1980s as a small group of MIT researchers and students took off to explore new frontiers of computing. Their vision was based on two key aspects:

At the time when computers were bulky desktop devices and even the notion of carrying a computer easily from one place to another was only slowly gaining ground, they envisioned systems that could be used to access information anytime, anywhere, anywhere, e.g. while walking, playing golf or repairing aircraft, in a restaurant or on the bus.

Long before cheap sensors found their way into consumer devices, they were looking for ways to enable their systems to perceive and understand the environment and to include the user’s location, situation and activity in the system function.

Originally, research was very much focused on devices and platforms as technology was far from adequate at that time. The results were often complex setups with custom-built computer boards, large batteries, bulky sensor modules and scores of cables running all over the user’s body. Consequently, Wearable Computing became associated with the notion of “cyborg”, like geeks with little potential for short to mid-term commercial impact. Companies that got involved with the academic Wearable Computing Community often did so for publicity reasons rather than from a product perspective.

Interestingly, while the Wearable Computing researchers often cultivated the cyborg image, the focus of their work was never on exotic hardware (which was just a means to an end) but on the two core pillars of their vision: anytime, anywhere usability, and the ability of the system to perceive and react to the real world. Thus, over the last two decades, a huge amount of innovation has emerged in this area, from methods for deriving complex contextual information from simple sensors and innovative user interfaces to scores of application concepts. However, due to the niche carved out by academic Wearable Computing research, this has so far had little impact on products. All is about to change thanks to two developments:

Hardware needed to implement many of the Wearable Computing ideas has finally reached the mainstream. The main drivers are smartphones which combine significant computing power with elaborate sensing and communication capabilities. However, with the emergence of cheap sensors and communication links such as Bluetooth low energy distributed on body sensors and interaction devices are also becoming common place.

Even more important, the general public has embraced the two key concepts of wearable computing. Smart phone usage has become ubiquitous and accessing the internet anytime, anywhere is not the exception but the rule. Furthermore, people have become used to location and context-based services and the notion of sensors supporting and driving applications.

In short, we now have both a technology push and a consumer pull for Wearable computing applications. Hence it is now high time to put the fruit of the research conducted over recent decades into practice.

About the author and this column:
Professor Dr Paul Lukowicz is head of the research group Embedded Intelligence at the DFKI (German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence) in Kaiserslautern. This column will be appearing regularly through cooperation between DFKI and Wearable Technologies and aims to facilitate the process of transforming research concepts into real products by introducing and explaining key research results.