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Silicon Valley Engineers Develop Wearable, Washable Computers

Ever since media critic Marshall McLuhan called the computer "the most extraordinary extension of our central nervous system," researchers have been pursuing the Holy Grail of a wearable computer: from wristwatches that double as cellular phones, to jackets that allow Internet access from anywhere.

As we struggle with the plethora of gadgets that empower, and enslave us, juggling cell phone, laptops, PDAs and maybe even an MP3 player, the utility of wearing your own technology becomes obvious.

Inside the San Jose, California offices of Infineon Technologies, wearable electronics researcher Stephan Jung shows off the device he believes will make it all possible - a small square piece of plastic attached to a ribbon of cloth-covered wires.

"It's a special package for an electronic module which is attached to this conductive textile strip. And the special thing about it is that you can wash it, dry clean it and it won't affect the electronics in it," he said.

To demonstrate the product, Infineon commissioned fashion designers to create prototype garments with built-in MP3 players, from slinky dresses to jogging jackets.

A replaceable cartridge, about the size of a postage stamp, slips into a special opening in the clothing. It contains both the batteries to power the system and about two hours of digitized music. Headphones are built into the drawstrings of the jacket's hood. Although these are just prototypes, Mr. Jung sees a ready market.

"I see many, many people jogging around, walking around, having their walkman or CD player in their hands," he said.

But entertainment is just a tiny portion of the technology's potential. The company envisions applications in a host of fields, from security and surveillance, to health care, such as biomedical monitors that record and report vital signs like heart rate or blood pressure. And even those examples just scratch the surface.

"Hey check this out, I have a wearable computer here with a Pentium inside, runs Java Jini and JavaSpaces," said Doug Sutherland.

Doug Sutherland developed what he called the Java Jacket while working at Sun Microsystems a couple of years ago. The black leather jacket was a fully functional computer complete with internet access, a GPS receiver and a host of other functions such as the ability to remotely control lights and appliances in his home from anywhere in the world. He demonstrates it on a RealAudio clip from his personal web site.

"…you can see my sleeve display. And here's my living room in the Santa Cruz mountains…" he said.

Mr. Sutherland now works for Santa Monica-based Charmed Technologies. The company aims to become a world leader in wearable Internet products. Its wearable computer weighs less than a kilogram and does anything a desktop computer can do. You can't throw it in the wash but it's a start. Other companies offer "smart" clothing with more specific applications, a belt that uses wireless technology for group communications, a watch that can receive e-mail and pager messages, as well as Internet content, a shirt that constantly monitors more than 30 cardio-pulmonary functions.

There's more to come. Some fashion schools are offering courses in wearable electronics design. And a growing community of people, who call themselves Cyborgs, have committed to developing and wearing prototypes of digital fashion all the time. The devices have gotten smaller, and the interface simpler over the years, and many Cyborgs see this "second skin of technology" as the next step in human evolution. Even if we don't evolve as a species, many experts believe our garments will, and that smart clothing will be widely available within the next decade.