Sunday, June 15, 2003

First Mobile Systems Conference Report

Although the first round of Simputers is barely present in the market, it isn't too soon to think about the next generation models. What would you like to see? We know that much wider language support is coming, including text-to-speech and voice recognition. More applications will come pre-installed on future models. An e-mail client and a new browser are on the current list for sure, and Encore is exploring many other packages. Many more Linux applications will become available in forms that can be downloaded and installed easily. Various people on the Simputer list and elsewhere have suggested built-in wireless capability, larger screens, an Ethernet connection, Windows CE, full PDA functionality, and other features, most of which are in development somewhere at Encore or one of its partner companies. This is great stuff, of course, but I'm getting excited about even more remarkable capabilities that we can foresee.

I recently spent two days at the ACM/Usenix Mobile Systems Conference in San Francisco, and I have several new items on my own wish list as a result. One is a computer that I can wear, another is a computer that can automatically join the network when I arrive in a new town or a new office and automatically find the resources that I might like to use, and a third is a computer that can seamlessly move between different communications modes as I move around, or plug and unplug, the way my cell phone can hand of from one cell to another. Of course handing off between a direct wired, IrDA, or wireless connection between two units, a wired or wireless LAN, and the Internet as I move in or out of range is a lot harder than a cell phone handoff, but at the conference I heard how it could be done. More about ideas two and three another time, after I get a chance to talk to more of the people involved. They need not just technology, but a set of international standards, a lot of money, and some way to organize the whole process to keep from falling over each other's feet as we get started.

Anyway, the hot idea for me right now is the wearable Simputer, which is possible right now for the bleeding-edge early adopter with nothing more than technology and cash. To make this a product, we need to replace the screen on the Simputer with a heads-up display, and include a one-hand keyboard. To fool around with the idea, we need a pluggable display (available off the rack), the keyboard, and some of those children's shoes with built-in lights, rewired to the power connector. These shoes are powered by the wearer walking, and I'm told that walking generates enough power to keep a handheld computer's batteries charged.

Think about that. If you work sitting down in an office, you can keep your Simputer plugged in all the time, even if your office isn't on the electrical grid. You can just set up a solar cell on the roof or the windowsill. And if you work standing up and walking around, then you generate the power you need yourself.

So what's the big deal about wearable computing, you might be asking yourself, for someone who doesn't walk around all day? Well, maybe it won't be a big deal to you. But think about how people are going to use handheld computers. The way things are now, they have to hold the computer in one hand and the stylus in the other, and they have to look at the screen much of the time. This is what we call heads-down computing, especially if the user is doing it most of the day. It is how you program, and write, and study, and enter data, but it is not how you want to conduct an interview, or an inventory, or talk to a customer or client. If you can look at another person, or at some object you want to deal with, and have a hand free besides, you can be much more effective and efficient.

A lot of people have been talking about wearable computers for ten years and more, and a few of them have been doing something about it, but it is only now becoming practical in products, and nobody has put the pieces of the puzzle together yet. The Simputer part would be easy for the design team. We can design and build a model without the tiny screen of current Simputers, and with a socket to plug in a head-mounted or glasses-mounted display. That display would have a tiny LCD or LED chip, perhaps a backlight, and some lenses so that the screen would appear to the user to be full size and at a comfortable viewing distance. The computer would need a display controller chip matched to the display chip's resolution, color palette, memory architecture, and control signals. The low-power Geode 9211 display controller chip that I once documented for National Semiconductor would do, and there are others like it.)

Previous heads-up displays have been too expensive, limited in viewing angle, and otherwise unsatisfactory. Recent products have switched from glass to plastic lenses, which saves money, with improved optical design. The tiny display chip we need is much less expensive than a flat-panel display, and draws far less power. The main problem that remains is that current volume is far too low. We need a market of 10,000 units to get the manufacturing economies of scale to kick in.

Thad Starner of Georgia Tech, who was at the Mobile Systems Conference, was wearing a $1,000 display, but he assures me that there is a design availaible of acceptable visual quality that could be made for $60 each in quantity.

You can't get a touch screen on a heads-up display, so we would need some other device for typing and pointing. There is currently a one-hand keyboard with a USB connection, the Twiddler2, for $220, and that price also would come down sharply with quantity production. You have to touch type, of course, and you have to learn more key combinations (chords) than on a two-hand keyboard, but I hear that it doesn't take any longer to learn than a regular keyboard.

Now, let us come back to reality. This system would cost about US$1500.00 today. If the estimates I have been given are correct, then at the 10,000 unit production level, the price would be about $400. And a wearable is not a shareable. So this is not the Simputer we know, love, and wish we could get our hands on. It is what I call Gee-Whiz technology. It would be a terrific draw in a trade show booth, but nobody other than a gadget freak like me would plunk down cash, certainly not company cash, without seeing a specific benefit in a real application that would overcome the resistance to the idea from managent, finance, and above all the users. That means that it has a quite restricted set of applications to start out with, and it will take quite a while to grow past them.

So, then...so what? Well, I certainly want one. If you, too, would like a computer that you can walk around in, or you know of a compelling application for one, definitely let me know. If there is a way to make it happen, I'll push for it. Look for me to turn up sometime wearing my homebrew version.
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