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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Computers in Your Shorts

RENTON, Washington -- Think computers, only smaller. So small you could swallow one or wear one in your long johns. So smart they'd fade into the background and you'd only notice the information you were getting, not where it was coming from.

That's the hope -- and the promise -- of wearable computers, the next phase in the personal computing revolution, embodied in the eye-catching array of devices displayed this week at a conference sponsored by the Boeing Co., the world's largest aircraft manufacturer.

Already, the U.S. Army has a pill-sized computer that could be swallowed to track the core body temperatures of soldiers on training missions.

The Navy is building a "sensate liner" -- an intelligent set of long johns woven from conductive polymers to tell medics what is wrong with a wounded soldier.

"It can tell the difference between a high-speed round and a bayonet and ... it can tell if the soldier is bleeding," said Eric Lind of the Naval Command Control and Ocean Surveillance Center.

Civilian uses were also much in evidence at the Boeing Workshop.

Thad Starner of the vaunted Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was one of several "wired" individuals in the hall. His plastic lab glasses held a Private Eye, a tiny screen that hung in front of his right eye, allowing him to read off the laptop computer slung over his shoulder.

His private information servant displays notes, background information and his latest e-mail via an Internet link.

Whenever he heard something interesting, he pulled the "Twidler" input device off the computer and took notes using a chordal system, in which each letter is formed by pressing on several keys.

At MIT, researchers envision a world where the computer a person is wearing would interact with its environment, plucking information out of the air for its master's use. Scientists have already set up visual tags in their lab that broadcast information to whoever looks at them through a wearable lens.

"We have a plant in our lab which doesn't get watered appropriately," Starner said. "A sensor on the plant notes when it is watered and sends a message to the room computer. A month later, the plant can send the message 'I need to be watered' and it would be uploaded to the system so that anyone looking at the plant would see a little note that says, 'Water Me!'"

At the University of Washington, researchers are building retinal scanning displays that would eliminate the need for head-mounted screens. Users would wear a little projector just below the eye.

The projector would use an extremely low-power laser to paint a picture one pixel at a time on the retina, at the back of the eye, in much the same way a cathode ray tube paints and repaints the image on a TV screen.

Supplying power to these wearable computer systems is still being worked out. Batteries are heavy and need to be frequently replaced or recharged.

At MIT, scientists are investigating the possibility of computers powered by the human body. The military calls it "energy harvesting."

For example, a band strapped across the torso could use the movement of the chest in breathing to produce enough energy to run a low-power computer. Another possibility is an electrical system that would enable a person to produce a charge simply by walking.