DESIGN FOR LIFE: A look techno-geeks would love

Interdisciplinary projects fashion wearable computing, mobile systems

Thad Starner wears his computer wherever he goes. It comprises a hand-held nine-button keyboard, a battery pack slung over his shoulder, and a tiny monitor attached to his glasses an inch from his left eye.

The Georgia Tech professor, a pioneer and leading light in the field of mobile computing, finds this set-up a model of efficiency and convenience. His calendar is always handy. He has his computer's memory to supplement his own. He can work anywhere, even lying down if he chooses. When driving, he can check a map more quickly, and thus more safely, than he could a dashboard GPS screen.

And he can take notes whenever ideas strike him. "The most interesting conversations I have are on the go," says Starner, director of Tech's Contextual Computing Group, whose research focuses on wearable computing and technology that assists the disabled. During those informal conversations, "people say what they are really thinking about," he says.

Advantages notwithstanding, Starner's setup is not for everybody —- at least not yet. It's fragile and expensive. You have to lug a battery around. And, even if it didn't look a bit weird, it probably would interfere with most any fashion statement beyond techno-geek.

"You can come up with the coolest electronics in the world, but if the public doesn't feel like using it, it's a no-go," says fashion designer Clint Zeagler.

Form meets function

Starner's lab is investigating alternative power sources for mobile computing devices, such as body heat, blood pressure and body motion. At some point, however, any techno-whiz will need the services of an industrial designer.

Summoning an array of skills including engineering, aesthetics and psychology, the designer's goal is to maximize a product's functionality and its desirability. As Madison Avenue has long demonstrated, we have emotional reactions and connections to any product, be it toothpaste or a forklift. Wearables, however, are particularly fraught.

"Anything you put on your body says something about yourself," Zeagler says. "It says, 'I belong to this group or I want to.' "

When self-image is at stake, psychology might trump engineering. For instance, in a case study from Donald Norman's "Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things," National Football League coaches rejected designs for headsets made of titanium, even though they would have been lighter and more comfortable, because they perceived the bulkier headsets as more manly.

Starner and Zeagler teamed up last fall to teach a course for industrial design and computing students so that they could experience the dynamics of interdisciplinary collaboration firsthand.

One project was a combination of fashion and high-tech function called the Smart Noti jacket. Computing students Sidhant Gupta and Mayank Goel worked to keep the hardware small and the software as sophisticated as possible. Nicholas Komor, an industrial design student with aspirations in fashion, determined where best to place it and determined style and materials.

Komor's design incorporates at least one fairly low-tech system: By flipping up the hood, the wearer can signal that he or she is talking on a Bluetooth device. That can help avoid the awkward social scenario when passers-by mistakenly think the conversation is directed at them.

Function meets formality

Like so much of our new technology, the gizmos we use introduce social issues we've never had to address before. Starner says his mobile computing system, for example, makes for confusing social cues. "I'd be lying down on the sofa reading, and my students would think I was sleeping," he says.

When he sits at his desk, he faces his desktop monitor, even though he is really looking at his mini-monitor, to signal that he is working and not in a trance.

It's also disconcerting because it's hard to tell where the computee's attention lies. Or as Zeagler puts it, "Are you listening to me or playing solitaire?"

Perhaps designers should add Miss Manners to their teams, if we want our social IQs to be smarter than our clothes.

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