Wearing the Net on your sleeve: A look at future trends

Talking about how the future will be affected by technology is so exciting. I have recently started to wonder when I’ll be able to wear a computer. Then I imagine that one day I may be able to download my brain? These are the kind of things that also thrill the founder of Futurist.com.

Glen Hiemstra is the founder of Futurist.com and author of “FuturistNews” and “Beyond 2020: The Shape of Things to Come.” He was educated at Whitworth College, the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington.

Hiemstra is also a visiting scholar at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington and was a consultant to the futuristic – but recently cancelled- TV show “Century City.”

I asked Hiemstra to tell us his thoughts on the trends in wearable computing and was surprised to find out the future is now emerging from a small company in Bothell.

Q: In the future, the way we communicate with computers will change. Tell us a little bit about your glimpse into the future.

Hiemstra: This is a topic I’ve been paying attention to for some time. This first began to appear in the mid-1990s with something out of MIT which they called the Wearable Computer Initiative in which people carried big laptops strapped to their back and these weird looking goggles. My question was if there would come a day when we would carry significant computing power around with us in things that we wear. The Boeing company and the military were interested in that.

Q: What were your findings?

Hiemstra: In the year 2000, George Washington University did a study asking technologists to make forecasts. One of the forecasts they asked them to make was what would be the top 10 consumer products in the year 2010. Among the top ten were wearable computers. That sparked my interest even more and it was around that time that I became a visiting scholar at the HIT lab at the University of Washington. That’s the Human Interface Technology lab, which had been, for the ten years previous, studying virtual reality and augmented reality technology and basically asking the question how human beings can interact more effectively with data through computers.

Q: Is that day upon us yet?

Hiemstra: What I see coming – and we’ve really started seeing it in the last couple of years in some consumer products – is more computer power built into devices small enough to wear. We wear them clipped on to our belts or in our pockets and they might be cell phones or personal digital assistants. That’s the precursor of the wearable computers.

We’ve seen some testing of products that might have a keypad built into the sleeve that might operate a little bit of computing power somewhere in the garment. What people expect – and its reasonable for 2010 – would be that a pair of glasses you would wear might enable you to view computerized data when you want to. In other words, act like an augmented reality device.

Q: Is there anyone doing that yet?

Hiemstra: Just this spring, MicroVision, a company in Bothell, Washington (www.mvis.com), has started selling its commercial version of what they call Nomad, which is a wearable computer. Their target market is the automobile repair industry. You wear a little computing device on your hip and then you put on a baseball cap and attached to the underside of the bill of the cap are devices that enable a virtual retinal display to bounce off a little mirror-like device in front of one eye. It beams a computerized image onto the little mirror and reflects off that mirror direct into your eye using a red laser. So you have a laser computer display painted onto your eyeball.

It’s kind of like if you were looking through the point of view of the Terminator. The Terminator would look at a subject and get all kinds of readings in his eye. They have prototypes of full-color versions, but right now the cheapest is to use a red laser device. But if you remember the original Gameboys were only in red, then they became color.

The future is the miniaturization of computing power and particularly the miniaturization of storage devices, as well as the ability to do a virtual retinal display painted right on the eye using smaller and, of course, smaller devices.

Q: Anything else on the horizon that intrigues you?

Hiemstra: There is one other technology that comes to mind: the flexible, polymer computer screens, the light-emitting diodes that can be integrated into a flexible polymer screen. There are some initial consumer products coming out.

Q: Smart paper?

Hiemstra: Yes, it’s like paper made out of fabric, although it’s really plastic, so that things to get more flexible and more powerful. Then one begins to ask if you can have that much computing power built into inflexible, wearable device – would we used it?

Q: You agree?

Hiemstra: I think that starting with certain industrial type uses like the automobile repair people would relieve them of the necessity of working on an engine, running over to a computer screen and looking up instructions or a diagram, running back to the automobile, running back to the computer screen – all that back and forth stuff gets taken care of by wearing this device.

The full audio interview with Robin is available at WebTalkRadio.com. More information on Glen Hiemstra can be found at www.futurist.com and the Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab at www.hitl.washington.edu/. Hiemstra’s Beyond 2020 Predictions video can be viewed at www.uwtv.org/programs/displayevent.asp?rid=1689.

Dana Greenlee is co-host/producer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based nationally syndicated radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.

This Saturday, May 1, WebTalk Radio show guests Kevin Goulet, director of product operation for Motorola’s MOTOgroup. He’ll discuss the still-in-production new MPx phone that is also a mini always-connected laptop.

Also, Ben Macklin, Senior Analyst for eMarketer.com, will share his research on growing broadband adoption trends from around the world, particularly in China and Korea.

“WebTalk Radio” is heard at 11 a.m. Saturday on KLAY-AM (1180) and 10 p.m. Tuesday on KVTI-FM (90.9).