A Brief History of Wearable Computers

Gone are the days when a ‘compact computer’ filled an entire room or when a laptop required a chunky external battery to be considered as a ‘portable’ option – these days, most of us are walking around with smart-phones which have many hundreds of times the processing power of the Apollo lunar landing computers, but how far away are we from truly ‘wearable’ computing technology?

Roulette à la ‘James Bond’

The earliest example of a wearable electronic computer was devised by a mathematician in the 1960s, who developed a small counting machine, which was designed to predict the results of roulette spins; this required some cooperation between a group of users in order to be effective, with one data-gathering lookout transmitting the wheel spin speed data via electronic switches hidden inside their shoes; the data in question was a coded signal, consisting of musical notation was then sent to a better’s earpiece; this system proved to be outrageously effective when tested in some of the top casinos of the day in Las Vegas.

Moore’s law in full effect

The ‘cheating’ equipment from the 1960s evolved into more advanced shoe computers which seen active use throughout the 1970s and 80s – miniaturisation became ever more advanced in all kinds of electronic devices during this era, with these type of covert activities helping to push the boundaries of what was possible when it came to hiding computers within a persons’ clothing.

Say hello to the cyborg on your street

In the early 80s, advances in camera and electronic technology meant that systems could be mounted onto a helmet, (complete with antennae) with the rest of the kit being loaded into a backpack: by the end of the 90s, these devices had become much more discreet, with the equipment now resembling a pair of nifty shades (all other components being hidden within or under the wearers’ clothing) – the purpose of such devices was to allow users to record a POV-style visual diary of their daily lives(this has become known as a ‘Cyborglog’) as well as to use the glasses as a kind of heads-up-display, when the cameras were combined with a projection device and user interface, such as a chorded keyboard.

What kind of computer would ‘Dick Tracy’ wear?

The 2000s seen wearable computing take its first steps towards becoming a tangible reality outside the academic world: Seiko and Fossil had previously launched wristwatch form-factor computers in the late 90s: these devices were essentially miniaturised PDAs, but the concept of using a wristwatch for something a lot more advanced than just reading the time was a concept straight out of a ‘Dick Tracy’ comic book!

What does the future hold for wearable computer technology?

With advances in computer technology steadily being made, processors are getting smaller as they increase in power: this is an exponentially rising trend, which is not expected to cease until the 2020s, so we have a lot more wearable tech to look forward to, as long as powerful companies and institutions continue to advance this field: with the likes of Google’s ‘Project Glass’ currently in development, we can expect heads-up displays, hands-free interaction via speech and even integration into standard eyewear to be commonplace in only a few short years.

Fred Reid is a technology blogger who works as a consultant for Computrad