People already planning their New Year's Eve celebration for the millennium won't be wanting for something to wear. Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed a 17th-century, rococo-style gown embroidered with delicate wires and switches to ring in the 21st century with touch-sensitive, light-emitting diodes.
The gown was part of a recent fashion show and symposium on what MIT's Media Lab sees as the next wave of technology and fashion: wearable computers that can be both whimsical and functional.
Wearable computers may find a home in anything from lighthearted performance art to suits that sustain life in outer space or the deep ocean. The idea is to make the computers fit humans, rather than the other way around, says MIT Prof. Rosalind Picard.
"We really need human-centered computing, that is, wearable computing that wraps around us, rather than having humans adapt to computers," Ms. Picard, MIT's NEC career development professor of computers and communications, told symposium attendees.
Picard has worked on earrings that can sense the pulse and other accessories that can determine, for example, whether a student understands a point in a professor's lecture.
At the fashion show, students from the Media Lab teamed with fashion students from Creapole in Paris, Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, Domus in Milan, and Parsons School of Design in New York to create their visions of the future, which they aptly named "Beauty and the Bits."
The results - a mix of art and science, function and fun - looked like a marriage of youth fashion designer Todd Oldham and the cast of the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."
A "Museum Guide System," for example, consists of a pair of headphones that communicate with a finger-ring guide storing information about the wearer's preferences and previous museum experiences. The wearer can tour a museum, point the ring at the identification tag in front of that artifact, and a voice microchip will give its history. The guide also can tell the wearer that an artifact has a companion at another gallery the person toured only a few months ago.
But these entertaining creations portend a day when humans will wear more serious, nonobtrusive computers woven into their clothing that could help them better adapt to their environment.
"Technology helps when you get to the top of a mountain and forget to breathe due to the thin air," explains Ted Selker, a mountain climber and International Business Machines fellow at the Media Lab. He says body sensors could signal a lightweight, portable computer that would prompt a climber to breathe at regular intervals in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere. He expects the first widespread application of computers embedded into clothing to be in the field of sports.
Mr. Selker drew skeptical laughs from attendees when he donned a hefty backpack filled with instruments and strapped a notebook-sized computer and keyboard to his waist. Although today's version of his dream wearable computer is clunky and heavy, Selker emphasized that with the fast advancement of technology, wallet-sized personal computers and tiny plastic displays that fit comfortably on a belt aren't that far off.
MIT technologists envision a day when trekkers wear a "CyberClimber" suit and travelers pack their "Lingua Trekka" translator jacket to roam the world without language barriers.
Intelligent electronics will be woven into lightweight fabrics that can help cool or heat us and warn of impending dangers. Wigs, jewelry, and other accessories will be able to show moods, tension, or other emotions.
"Five to 10 years from now, wearables will move into the mainstream," predicts Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte.
Wearable computers aim to allow people to better adapt to changes in the world around them. For example, marine biologist Sylvia Earle says scientists are woefully behind in developing a wearable computer that will keep her warm, give her air, and allow her to research the deepest parts of the sea while also withstanding the rigors of saltwater and severe pressure.
"New materials and sensors will turn today's crude suits into real personal submersible suits," said Ms. Earle, who is founder and chairman of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc. in Oakland, Calif.
Jim Page, vice president of business development at Motorola Inc. in Boynton Beach, Fla., says he foresees a day "when people will become nodes in a network. If I am on campus, my two-way pager can find another person with a two-way pager and he'll know I'm on campus, so we can meet."
He says these tiny pagers will find their way into clothes. A $25 T-shirt, for example, will have a pager and a display for messages. "And you'll be able to use the pager to announce special events ... or for advertising," he says. "People could become walking billboards."