Speech Lets Users Wear Computers

Developments in speech technology and voice recognition are especially meaningful to wearable computer applications. Voice is a natural output medium for people and relieves restrictions caused by keyboard and pointing devices. Hand-free operations are currently possible for limited applications, and more robust systems are currently being tested. Voice can be used for computer control or for data dictation. Verbal reports could also be given and immediately transcribed for printed display directly entered into a database.

The earliest development of wearable computers occurred in the 1960’s, and came as a result of an attempt to beat gambling odds. Invented in 1961 by Ed Thorp and Claude Shannon, this system was used to predict roulette wheels. The first system was a cigarette-pack-sized analog computer with 4-push buttons. A digital microprocessor was later used to "beat the house" in the "Eudaemon Caper."

A group of graduate physic students in California reasoned that by using Newtonian Motion Formulas it would be possible to predict the landing location of a roulette ball and thus produce a windfall payoff at a Nevada casino. The students were motivated, as much by pushing technology to accomplish their goal and the adventure of pulling it off in the fortress like atmosphere of a Nevada casino, as the financial payoff. The details of this effort are described in a fascinating book written by one of the participants.

Writing the motion formulas for the roulette wheel ball for this group of brilliant physicists was the easy part of the endeavor. The formula took into account initial conditions, multiple variables and the differential nature of the motion. It also had to take into account the speed of the wheel, the drop point of the ball, the type of roulette ball and the tilt of the wheel.

The calculation had to be made in the brief time between when the roulette ball was dropped and the table betting was closed, less than one minute. They knew the only timely way they could perform the calculation was to use an electronic computer. They used the mainframe computer available to them in the physics laboratory to establish the ability of the formulas written to predict the fall of the roulette ball. They had success using the second hand roulette wheel they had purchased for empirical experiments.

The next part of the enterprise initiated the birth of the first wearable computer. It was in response to the elements of the problem and the environment where it was to be used. The students determined that they needed a two-person operation in the casino, a bettor and a computer operator. The hardware they needed would consist of a concealed portable computer and communication system.

The portable computer needed an input/output capability so that the computer operator could input the formula’s initial conditions and receive the results of the calculation. The communication system selected was a short-range inductive system since the students felt that a RF system was likely to be detected by casino surveillance. The microprocessor computer needed to be programmed with the tailored software for predicting the roulette ball motion.

Power had to be supplied by batteries that would power the computer and communication transmitter in the computer operator’s equipment and the receiver and indicator equipment in the bettor’s equipment. The indicator equipment was a set of three solenoids which each had three vibration levels of response, slow, medium and fast, providing nine distinct outputs which corresponded to the nine octants of the roulette wheel.

All of the hardware, batteries and interconnecting wires had to be concealed in the clothing of the computer operator and the bettor. The bettor’s equipment was concealed in a shoe that contained the batteries, the inductive receiver and the set of solenoids that provided a vibrotactile display.

All of the elements of the modern wearable computer were in place in the Eudaemons system. The system contained wearable components that included a microprocessor, with tailored software, an operator interface, a display and a communication system.

After years of testing, dry runs, redesign for operational and ergonomic reasons, and modifications, the system was used for its designed purpose with some degree of success. The amount of money won was not reported or quantified but the true success of the effort can not be measured in a profit and loss statement. The success was really in the development of a computer application that was years ahead of its time, the adventure undertaken by a group of truly creative scientists and their friends (the Eudaemons) and what they were able to accomplish.

Rapid Development

Much like speech technology, wearable computer development has parallel advances in microprocessor technology. These chips now require less power and space and have greater processing and memory capability. Department-of-Defense interest (in the form of research grants) and industry participation has spurred rapid development at many academic institutions. A design by Mann (1980) used a backpack-mounted Apple-II computer to control photographic equipment. In 1983, Taft commercialized a Z-80-based, toe-operated computer for counting cards in blackjack. By 1990, Maguire and Ioannidis were leveraging spread-spectrum radio links in the IBM/Columbia Student Electronic Notebook Project.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has also been a real force in the early development of this field. DARPA’s efforts have involved the development of field wearable communication and computing devices for improving military fighting capability and the care of wounded personnel. Interesting partnerships have been created in this field between behavioral scientists, psychologists, engineers, software developers, system integrators, component developers, and manufacturing entities.

The 1990’s have seen the explosive growth of this field. In October 1997 the First International Symposium on Wearable Computers was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts and developments in this new computer field were described to the world. There were 385 individuals who registered for the symposium and eighteen exhibitors.

What is a Wearable Computer?

The wearable computer is a portable computer actually worn on the user’s body. The computer can be worn next to the skin or on the outside of clothing, a choice which may be a matter of the function of the computer. Proximity to the skin will allow the monitoring of the user’s biological functions and will provide an indicator system via tactile sensation on the skin.

A well designed system will evenly distribute the weight of the system, will provide all user interfaces in a convenient form and will allow the user full freedom of motion so that normal activity while wearing the computer is possible. All wearable digital computers contain a CPU, battery power supply, user interface for inputs and control, and an indicator system. Wearable systems can be designed to carry out narrow, specific tasks or they can serve as a general computing device.

The human engineering of the wearable computer is a vital feature of its design. It should become an extension of the user’s mental and physical capability and remain unobtrusive to normal human activities. Since humans naturally communicate with voice, a wearable computer should respond to the voice. The hands, which are normally used for performing tasks, are not restricted by a well designed wearable device.

The simple act of donning the wearable computer should be as easy as putting on an article of clothing. It should be comfortable, capable of long term wear and not restrict the user’s mobility. The equipment must be intrinsically safe to the user and to nearby equipment or personnel. Input and control functions must be easy and intuitive. Output displays must be easily read and understood.


Wearable computer components are similar to their portable computer counterparts except for ergonomic requirements. In general, components are smaller and lighter. Visual display devices tend to be head-mounted although some flat-plat designs are available for placement on the forearm. Audio or vibrotactile devices have also been used for input and output. By interfacing directly with the human senses of hearing and touch, these interfaces are natural and easily used. Ergonomics is critical to good wearable design. Additional components include:

• Input/Output devices
– mouse (pointing device)
– miniature keyboard
– specialized keypad
– voice recognition
– biological sensors
– global positioning system (GPS)
– video cameras

• Power source
– Batteries
– solar cells
– human body currents [4]

Recent advances in mobile communications technology have made "wearability" an important feature. Hands-free computing capability and ubiquitous data access provide greatly enhanced capability to an individual. Device micro-miniaturization and microprocessors advancements are driving energy requirements down and system capability up.

In the near future, low Earth orbit satellites could provide worldwide Internet access to body worn systems. This promises greatly enhanced network computing capability and real-time audio and video communications.

Commercial Wearable Systems

Currently there are only three wearable computer systems available commercially. One is the Xybernaut Wearable Computer. This system features a Pentium 133 MHz CPU, integrated pointing device and head mounted display (HMD). Batteries are worn on a belt around the waist. The HMD integrates a monitor, microphone and speaker into a light head worn device. The microphone and speaker provide for audio input and output. This can be used for voice driven applications or for voice communications. Wireless access to local networks is accomplished using a standard PCMCIA wireless LAN card. The headgear could also hold a miniature video camera. The HMD and CPU are interconnected via a cable

ViA Incorporated produces a wearable system based on a unique flexible motherboard. In this system, the computer is part of the belt and wraps around the user’s waist. Audio microphones and speakers are also available for input/output operations. Hard card mass storage and a handheld flat plat display round out this wearable system.

The most recent wearable computer to enter the commercial marketplace is the Mentis from Interactive Solutions. This system is designed for high end multimedia applications and features a modular assembly consisting of three separate, attachable sections: the processing unit, the universal utility bay, and the battery pack. The utility bay is used for insertion of rotating storage media such as CD-ROM, DVD or a second hard drive. The Mentis has already been used for instantaneous foreign language translations, fault diagnosis and "just-in-time" training.

All three of these systems have multiple configurations and options. They can also be used with many different head mounted or hand-held displays.

Kevin L. Jackson is the chief technology officer for Sentel Corp., 225 Reinekers Lane, Suite 500, Alexandria, VA 22314 and can be reached at 703 739-0084 and can be reached at kjackson@sentel.com.

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