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The wearable computer, a concept as old as the wrist-watch, has found new life.

The latest electroconductive materials can be woven into garments. A sweater, for example, can generate a feeling of warmth when the wearer takes a phone call from a loved one. The sleeve of a firefighter’s tunic can flash a warning of toxic materials.

These have been demonstrated in the laboratory. Robin Mannings, a BT futurologist at the telecoms operator’s Adastral Park research centre, thinks commercialisation is not far off. “We will see electronic displays on clothing worn by the emergency services very soon. And within five years, somebody, somewhere will come up with displays on high street clothing.”

Mr Mannings, whose own research is to do with ubiquitous positioning systems (knowing where everything is at all times) argues that wearable computing will have as yet unanticipated consequences for society.

There are eye-catching, or fun, applications: but has research into wearable computing a serious purpose? Professor Sandy Pentland of MIT’s prestigious Media Lab, one of the world’s leading experts on the topic, says that for “wearable computer” read “mobile phone”.

He argues: “The mobile phone is the first truly pervasive computing platform. The question is not: ‘is the wearable computer a gimmick?’ but whether it will be people’s primary computing platform and push all others decisively aside.”

He backs this view with a commercial rather than social argument: “With telecoms operators’ revenues from voice services dropping quickly, everyone is looking for digital data services to stoke growth. The model of a wearable computer is exactly that...and it is working.

“Google maps for handhelds, push e-mail and digital cameras are all computer applications migrating to the mobile. Even the physical aspect of the mobile is being designed around wearability. Look at the Moto line, the Oakley Bluetooth glasses and Bluetooth headsets.”

It is an argument that finds favour with Ken Blakeslee, chairman of Webmobility Ventures, an investment and advisory company, a longtime advocate of computing on the move: “The whole area of personal electronics is about connectivity,” he says, pointing to the importance of wearable human/machine interfaces – the input and display – rather than processors.

The mobile phone, he argues, has as much power and resources as a desktop computer but has shortcomings: “The time it really lets you down is when you want to listen to something or experience something. That is where, I believe, better headsets and displays will come into their own.

“I think it’s about things you can carry rather than wear. If they are fashionable you show them; otherwise you hide them. People don’t want to be seen carrying chunks of technology.”

As examples, Mr Blakeslee points to lightweight, comparatively inexpensive (around €300) head-up displays in the shape of spectacles made by MicroOptical Corporation and by Incuiti Corporation. Many experts believe that the most important uses of wearable (and embeddable) technology will be in medicine and health. Professor Joe Paradiso of MIT, for example, developed shoes that analyse the movement of a dancer or the gait of a disabled person.

According to Robin Mannings of BT: “The fact that clothing is intimately in contact with the body gives you the opportunity to monitor body systems closely: the heart through the shirt, the head through the hat.”

He says that with increasing health and safety legislation, wearable computers would be a way of ensuring people are in the right place and doing the right things in the right way: “There is, inevitably, a Big Brother aspect to all that, but I’m afraid that is just part of business.”

Mr Mannings also envisages intelligent clothing conversing with chips inside the body to monitor well-being: “If I was having an operation, I wouldn’t mind the surgeon slipping in a chip or two while he’s at it,” he says.

But then, futurologists think like that.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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