June 18, 2001 2:45 PM PDT

MIT building a 'suitable' computer

Wearable computers have long been on the wackier end of the technology visionary scale. But for Steven Schwartz, the idea of them overtaking mobile phones or handheld computers for Web surfing and personal organizing is a no-brainer.

"This will deconstruct the cell phone," the MIT research scientist said of the tiny device he has built into a pair of special glasses and has connected to a network of circuit boards designed into a vest worn under his suit.

The system projects an image as big as a TV screen to people wearing the custom-built eyepiece, whereas mobile devices remain constrained to the physical dimensions of their tiny screens, said Schwartz, who works in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

MIThril, as the wearable circuitry is dubbed, has been designed not to allow people to read e-mail or surf the Web--although both are possible--but with the loftier aim of giving them control of their environment.

Designed by Richard DeVaul, a graduate student that Schwartz is advising, the wearable computer contains an energy-efficient microprocessor designed by ARM Holdings and a set of circuits connected via Ethernet.

DeVaul has no doubts the invention will empower people in ways that mobile devices in their pockets can never do. "The cell phone is fundamentally broken," he said. "(It) can ring at any moment...What we need is a cell phone that will know when not to disturb me and to change its profile based on where I am or what I'm doing."

Enter the cybersuit and the eyepiece, which is dubbed Memory Glasses. "They can remind me to get a pint of milk when I pass the grocery store," DeVaul said of one of its more mundane applications.

The comparative shopping that consumers already do on the Internet could be launched from their clothes in the shops themselves, Schwartz said. "That could be the killer application: Terminator goes shopping," he jokes.

Although DeVaul said he has successfully worn the suit on a trip from New York to Boston without eliciting strange looks, he doesn't believe the suit--which has so far been worn by fewer than a hundred people--will reach the street in its current state. Instead, he said, the wires will be embedded into fabric and the components will be detachable via Velcro fastenings.

The project is also working on a kind of do-it-yourself cyberkit, complete with information on the software and hardware and even a sewing pattern for how to attach the gear to one's garments.

For those not convinced of their wearable computer assembly skills, Schwartz asserts that some form of a wearable computer will be commercially available within the next five years.

Staff writer Jane Wakefield is based in England.

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