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Wearable Computing and the Internet of Things

It is hard to go anywhere now and not see individuals, or even whole crowds of people, staring intently at their “devices”. I was walking past an outdoor café the other day and noticed that every single person on the patio was engaged in texting, searching, and scanning. No one was talking. It is pretty obvious that wearable devices will very soon replace our “phones” – which will become, at most, a router or local HTTP server. In the longer term, phones may no longer exist. While the exact format (and number) of wearable devices remains to be seen, the direction is pretty clear.

The other development, which is less visible but which will become equally pervasive, is the Internet of Things, meaning the integration of addressable sensor and actuation devices on the Internet. What began as curiosities a few years ago (anyone remember the robot garden or the electric train?) are now rapidly progressing to sensors and actuators being everywhere and tied to real systems, from door locks on buildings to systems for electrical power transmission.

It is pretty obvious that Wearable Computing devices and the Internet of Things were made for each other, and that all sorts of applications can be anticipated. What might be some of them?

A trivial but important one will be security. You walk up to a door and, if you meet the entrance criteria, it opens. The device cannot be transferred to another person because it measures some individual characteristic that is unique to you, like odours and finger prints, and because it communicates that information to the door lock, only you can open the door. The wearable device does not store any code because you yourself are the code. This type of security can also work in place of theatre tickets, airplane tickets, driving your car, and any other place where a specific person has particular access rights.

Of course if you can interact with doors, you can also interact with buildings and rooms. A room can sense your presence much like the lock, and present you with information related to your presence in the room, from the proverbial location-based advertisements, to information about performers during a concert, or surgical procedures, risks, and checklists during a medical operation. One can imagine this giving rise to various kinds of assistant avatars that “pop-up” in particular locations and situations. In fact, wearable computing devices and the Internet of Things will give rise to situation (with location) as a primary mode of experience.

I have often talked with people about an application I call “Whispering Google”. It was suggested to me by someone remarking that they hoped Google would become people’s “conscience”. It works like this: every time you talk, everything you say is captured and sent as a free text search to Google, and the response, hopefully processed in some intelligent fashion, is then whispered into your ear. Of course, if it can be whispered into your ear, it can also be whispered into the ears of the other participants in a conversation. No one looks anything up. Everything is being “looked up” all of the time.

Various forms of augmented reality are, of course, part and parcel of the integration of wearable computing and the Internet of Things. You look at goods in a store and the product “package” communicates with your “glasses” to show you product specifications, how to use the product, or information about its life history (such as shipping time for fresh fruits). You walk into a park and the park tells you about the bird life you can see in the park, perhaps augmented with examples of the bird calls, perhaps providing images of what the birds looked like perched in the trees above you. You ski down a hill and the hill provides information about how to ski down it safely, how you are currently doing (or not doing), and the conditions farther down the hill.

A more practical, daily application of this might be to support a utility worker who arrives on a site, such as a switching station. They look at the station and see overlays of the internal structure of the switches, access electrical one-line diagrams, and then invoke and access the results of diagnostic tests. These tests may involve actuation of the switch gear, introduction of stimulus signals, etc., and may combine automated and manual operations.

As physical infrastructure evolves, we can anticipate more and more sensors and actuation devices to be integral elements. These may regulate the infrastructure, estimate its current state, and provide input to backend office automation systems, but they may also support interaction with the infrastructure for on-site personnel. An on-site observer may “see” the strains in a dam or bridge structure, or the flows through a sewer pipe, or the quality of drinking water.

With wearable computing devices and the Internet of Things, the reality of The Matrix may not be so far away.