Last Modified:                                                                                                

Homepage / Publications & Opinion /

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: You Wear It Well
The clothing of the future...

Compared to the 100 years it took for the telephone to become a universal business tool, the meteoric rise of the mobile phone in the last 12, seems miraculous.

In just 12 years 59 million people have purchased 90 million mobile phones in the UK - giving us a situation where today there are 45 million operational mobiles.

No forecaster, engineer, marketing or sales executive guessed so many would pay so much for so little! It appears that convenience and mobility overrides all other considerations. In fact, doing everything on the move seems to be our preference.

I travel the planet with a 2.5G mobile that allows me to communicate from anywhere, with anyone, anytime, at an acceptable cost. I conduct business independent of a fixed continent - let alone a fixed office. And while the power of my laptop has seen my productivity advance tenfold over the past decade, my mobile phone has seen my travel itinerary become increasingly frantic.

Adding GPS to mobile devices will be profound. In an instant we will locate a container on a ship, a stolen vehicle, or someone in need of medical attention. And we can expect to enter a room or building to find a message, metaphorically hanging in space for us, only to be accessed when we visit that location.

We tend to think of wearing technology as being all about wristwatch, PDA, mobile phone, pager and hearing aid. Many see wearables as walking the streets looking like the back of a PC. In my view it will be a subtle migration. People already talk into free space with mobile phone in pocket and headset in ear. Gameboy users wear head-up displays, while most of us will have worn a Walkman, Discman or MP3 player at some time. Most of us wear a wristwatch, and I occasionally wear a GPS wristwatch.

Wearables are already with us in many forms and gaining more belt, pocket and body space. We will soon see bar codes on our clothing, driving licence, passport and credit card, replaced by wireless transponders - RFID tags. 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 would like my personal information made instantly available to streamline all physical processes including security, access and purchases. And with RFID tags on our clothes everything will be possible and we will save vast amounts of time and money.

The key element to this increasingly 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 (Wi-Fi) standards. So with a myriad of intelligent items we can buy and wear, we may arrive at the wearable computer by installments.

MP3 and mobile phones will most likely merge with a GPS and PDA 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.

The key question is - how is the limited radio spectrum going to cope? Fortunately we have used less than 10 per cent of the frequency spectrum available. Between 30 and 300GHz almost none of the spectrum is used as molecular resonances make it difficult to communicate over significant distances. For example, at 270GHz communication is limited to around 100m. This mitigates for future pico-cells - exactly what is required.

With conventional mobiles the communication cell spans 1km to 25km, to cope with the density of handsets in most city and rural locations. But as the number of mobile devices proliferate we will need individual cells for the human body, car, room, home, office, building, hotel, campus, street, village, town, and so on.

What is required to achieve this? Only the allocation of unused frequency space, power limiting specifications to keep radio operation safe and interference free, and smart software. The good news is that short distance communication also mitigates for low power, and along with mobile phones, most new devices adjust the transmitter power to be just sufficient for each application.

A long time ago I speculated on a pair of spectacles that would extend my visible frequency range into the UV and IR. That was realised by night vision devices and image intensifiers. The next step might be to go down the frequency range so we can see below 300GHz. Now that would be interesting. We all give off heat - infra red radiation - and soon that will be overtaken by Radio Frequency radiation. Now that will make for an interesting picture!

This column was typed on my G4 laptop at my home during an unexpected blizzard that afforded a welcome interlude from a busy schedule. Dispatched to over Wi-Fi to a high-speed internet connection.