TechMan: Wearable computers are developing rapidly

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Some tech pundits -- TechMan included -- have said that wearable computers are the next big thing.

Generally we are talking about things like Google Glass, which allow for augmented reality by giving access to information we don't have stored in our brains or enhancing our senses. In fact, some have proposed that these devices could enhance memory in Alzheimer's patients and allow them more mobility.

Wearable computers that make up for damaged senses or body parts are already commonplace. The most widely used such device is probably the modern, digital hearing aid.

In a digital hearing aid, sound waves hit a microphone where they are converted to an electrical signal, then changed to a sequence of 1s and 0s. This code is manipulated by a microprocessor chip according to programmed settings for frequency (pitch) and volume to deliver a clear sound set precisely to the user's hearing loss. The signal is then converted back to analog and then to sound that is broadcast into the user's ear. These hearing aids also can be programmed with different channels suited to how much background noise there is.

Another area where wearable computing is developing fast is in prosthetic limbs. Prosthetic limbs have been getting a lot of focus because in recent warfare, IEDs -- or roadside bombs -- often result in the loss of limbs. This is nothing new in warfare. During the Civil War, three out of four operations on soldiers were amputations.

Targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) is one of the cutting-edge technologies used to control prosthetic limbs.

The brain controls the muscles in your limbs by sending electrical commands down the spinal cord and then through peripheral nerves to the muscles, according to HowStuffWorks. In an amputation, the signals would meet a dead end at the site of a missing limb. In the surgical procedure required for TMR, these amputated nerves are redirected to a healthy muscle elsewhere in the body. For example, the surgeon might attach the nerves that once controlled a patient's arm to a portion of the patient's chest muscles.

When the patient attempts to move his or her amputated arm, the control signals traveling through the original arm nerve will now cause a portion of chest muscles to contract instead. This can be sensed with electrodes and used to operate a prosthetic limb.

So why not just take the electrical signals directly from the nerves or even the brain? Recording from the brain and nerves is more challenging because those electrical signals are very small and hard to access.

The field of neural interfacing is dedicated to developing ways to listen and communicate with the brain and nerves, according to HowStuffWorks. Advances in the field may some day allow people to control prosthetic limbs by just thinking.

A leader in this research is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the folks who brought you the Internet.

Wearable computing devices are already popular in the health and fitness field. TechMan wears a device, called a Fitbit, that records exercise activity for the day and transmits it to the computer for tracking. Many similar products exist.

But when most people think of the future of wearable computing, they probably are most aware of Google's Project Glass, often called Google Glass.

Google call the eyeglass-type device "a smartphone for the eyes," and has demonstrated them live and in a video.

Google says it plans to have the device available for developers by 2013 and for the general public by 2014 at a cost of $1,500. The device will feature location and other environmental sensing that can provide information based on where you are or what you are viewing displayed directly to a screen worn over one eye.

You also can take a photo of what you are looking at.

So in the future -- when such devices proliferate and the price comes down, as it has done with virtually every new technology -- maybe we'll all be walking around looking like Geordi in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. View or listen to TechTalk at multimedia.post-gazette.com.


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