Wearables, Whereables, Wereables

Posted by Peter Cochrane on February 22, 2002

Peter Cochrane

Compared to the 100 years it took for the telephone network to become a universal business and social tool, the rise of computing power in the past 50 years, and in particular the PC over the past 20 years seemed almost miraculous. Even more so the arrival and commercialization of the Internet over the last 6 years which has seen more societal and commercial change than anyone could have guessed or imagined. But perhaps a more radical and rapid change has occurred with the arrival of the mobile phone. In the UK for example it took over 100 years to install 28M fixed line telephones and just 11 years to see a 60M population purchase 45M mobiles. Across the planet, country by country, the story is the same or even more extreme, and in the 2nd and 3rd world the mobile phone is often the only phone.

No engineer, marketing or sales executive, forecaster or social commentator could have guessed so many would pay so much for so little! How come? It appears that our desire to communicate on the move, and sheer convenience, overrides our desire for call quality. As a species we are very social, we love to talk, we need to communicate, and we are absolutely driven to do and achieve more. Communicating on the move, in fact doing everything we can on the move, seems to be our preference. I now travel the planet with a single mobile phone that allows me to communicate from anywhere to anywhere, with anyone at anytime, at a cost I can easily afford. It allows me to conduct business independent of a fixed office or indeed continent. And whilst the power of my laptop has seen my productivity advance 10 fold in 10 years, my mobile phone has seen my travel itinerary become increasingly frantic. I suspect that telecommunications is doing for the travel industry what the PC did for the paperless office!

So what happens next? In this 21st Century security and health are going to be key issues that will impact greatly on society. Increasingly aged populations will not be able to support and care for the ill, infirm and disabled. Crime and terrorism may or may not escalate, but they will be perceived as an increased threat, and the number of people able to work will reduce. We are just going to have to get a lot more out of a lot less, and the only option is the employ our technology to do so. Of course increasingly intelligent machines and networks will help, but only for those who are static. So we have to think of people on the move - and not just the fit and able, but those with a pacemaker, respiratory stimulator, artificial heart, pancreas and other artificial organs. Putting such people on-line for mobile monitoring and emergency help will become a necessity and not a nicety.

The addition of GPS to mobile devices will also be profound. In an instant we will be able to locate a container on a ship or truck, a stolen vehicle or VHS, and someone in need of medical attention, or even a lost sheep on a mountainside. On average the trucks on our roads operate at around a 10% average loading. If the trucks knew where the containers and boxes where, and vice versa, we could probably take 7 out of 10 trucks off the road altogether and save $Bns in logistics costs.

We tend to think in terms of wearing technology, and that wristwatch, PDA, mobile phone, pager and hearing aid may seem so dumb today, but as the technology becomes more intelligent, and ubiquitous, perhaps it will be wearing us. The base technology that will see the mobile phone shrink from tody's chocolate bar, to tomorrow's jewelry is already with us, and so is the technology to get today's PC into something the size of a chocolate bar. Many protagonists see a world where we buy the wearable computer and walk about looking like the back of a PC. In my view it will be far more subtle. People already walk around talking into free space with mobile phone in pocket and headset in ear. Gameboy users already wear head-up displays, and all of us wear a wristwatch - many of which are multi-functional and very powerful computing engines. Walkman, Discman and MP3 players are now also very common. So wearable computers are with us in many forms and gaining more belt, pocket and body space. At a modest estimate we will soon see bar codes on our clothing, driving license, passport and credit cards, replaced by wireless transponders. And we will most likely choose to carry our complete electronic medical record with us at all times.

As I travel I want to be assured that I am safe, secure, and able to communicate at will. I don't want to stop at passport control, immigration or security. I would like all my personal information in this regard made instantly available to the authorities to streamline all physical processes. I would like this to also include the purchase of all food and clothing and other goods - just pick up and go - with wireless transponders on everything this will be possible and will save vast amounts of time and money. Moreover, if I have an accident, or I am taken ill, I want my entire medical record made available to the doctor/paramedics attending me. It is as simple as that! However, I do expect all such communication to be secure and reliable.

The key element to this increasingly mobile and wearable future is wireless for communication between the multiple devices we wear, and to the outside world. The BlueTooth standard has been developed for the former and 3G for the latter, and more recently a new contender for both has appeared in the form of the IEEE802.11 series of standards. So on the one extreme we will see a myriad of items we can buy and wear, and thus the arrival of the wearable computer by installments. Our MP3 and mobile phone will most likely merge with a GPS and PAD facility communicating between health monitoring and security elements plus our clothing tags and shoes to compute our needs and help with purchases and transportation. At the other extreme, all of these items may come ready assembled into our clothing, fully wired and ready to go, in the form of a vest, shirt or jacket.

Now the key question is - how is the limited radio spectrum going to cope with all this? The answer comes in several parts. First, we have so far only used <10% of the frequency spectrum available. This extends up to 30GHz and encompasses all our radio, TV, military, satellite radar and GPS services. Between 30 and 300GHz atmospheric resonances and disturbances make it increasingly difficult to communicate over long distances. For example, at 270GHz it is difficult to communicate over distances more than 500m. This mitigates for a key requirement, the provision of pico-cells. With conventional mobile telephone networks the cells generally span 3 - 25km, which is adequate for the density of handsets in most city, town and rural locations. But as the number of mobile devices proliferate we will need individual radio cells for the human body, inside the car, room, home, office, building, hotel, campus, street, village, town, and so on. Interestingly we have been this way before on a macro-scale with geo-stationary satellites orbiting at 36,000km to give coverage of continents and countries, and more recently, Low Earth Orbit satellite (LEOs) systems at 1500 - 2500km able to focus down to a single conurbation. Such developments may ultimately be overtaken by balloon-based systems orbiting at 25km to provide an even greater focus and more mobile channels. But, even if this were the case the density of mobile devices we can anticipate dictates need new forms of terrestrial network.

Fortunately there are new strategies for the terrestrial local loop that will accommodate far more mobility. For just $300 small 802.11 radio units can be screwed to the side of your house, or placed in a window, and connected to your PC. If others in you community also do this, then as soon as you power up your unit a search signal is despatched to look for the nearest neighbour. It would most likely get a series of replies and then automatically configure to create the most efficient network based on relative signal strengths, transmission delay times and concentration of traffic in the vicinity. As one community after another powers up the net grows across a region, and soon thousands can have Internet access without the need for any formal network authority. A few people representing each area as members of this network community have to purchase Internet access from a national provider, and the financing with contributions from across the population of users can be managed by the initial host's software.

What is required to achieve all of this? Only the allocation of spare frequency space, power limiting specifications to keep radio operation safe and interference free, and smart software. This 802.11 wireless technology is currently spreading across the USA, Scandinavia and the UK using the 2.4 and 5.0GHz unlicensed radio bands. Initial speeds are between 2 and 11Mbit/s, but 25 and 50Mbit/s systems are being developed. Transmission distances spanning 100m - 10km are possible depending on power and particular operating regimes. Whilst such networks can be seen as ad-hoc or parasitic, they are none the less powerful. To illustrate this point suppose I am in a room devoid of a conventional radio connection. My wearable computer may scan and seek out an individual or device in the room or leaving the building, and my message could leap to that device or other wearable. The next opportunity for my message may come in the form of a taxi. Once it has moved into the storage space of the taxi it may decide to hop from one vehicle to another along a street to a highway. Soon it is well onto its destination at the other end of the country or planet, and no network was required - only things and other people with wearbles!

Finally, we should take heed that chaos has already become the dominant mode through mobility and exponential IT growth. Why should this be so? Consider the telephone network of just 20 years ago. There was little or no correlated activity barring lunchtime, tea and coffee breaks when people stopped making calls. Then came TV voting by phone and someone from Liverpool singing a song on national TV could prompt 100,000 calls to London inside 15 minutes. Then the radio phone-in programmes arrived with their contribution to correlated activity. But worst of all the mobile phone arrived and people started to do new things. The long established model of 3 - 4 calls per customer per day at random times for durations of 3 - 4 minutes went out of the window. When traffic on a Motorway is in free flow there are relatively few people making mobile phone calls. But should there be an accident, then within 3 minutes over 1000 people will try to call office and home. Likewise, if a flight is canceled, or a train is late, then 100s will be on their mobile phones within minutes. All of these events are strange attractors in an increasingly chaotic world where we do more with less ever faster than before.

In a well-behaved telephone network the peak to mean traffic flow ratio is of the order 3:1. On mobile networks this ratio is around 50:1, but on the Internet it often exceeds 1000:1. Why and how? Because of the chaos of correlated activity with people attracted to sites at the same time. Swarming is a very natural outcome of network activity involving societies of people and machines. In this regard much worse is to come with the wearable computer when people, devices, applications and machine intelligence physically converge.

A feature of exponential growth is that it tends to go unnoticed for a very long time, and then suddenly it creeps up and makes a dramatic impact. Well, that is certainly the case with the PC, Internet and mobile phone. But I suspect the rise of the wearable will be event more dramatic!

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