May 06, 2002
Looking for the ultimate accessory? Someday, you might be able to wear your computer.
JPL engineer Ann Devereaux is hard at work developing the Wearable Augmented Reality Prototype (Warp), a personal communication device. The voice- activated wearable computer allows easy, real-time access to voice communication, pictures, video, people and technical reports.
"It's kind of like having your computer with you all the time," said Devereaux.
For astronauts, laptops are popular in space due to their portability. The wearable computer goes one step further by performing similar functions while being lighter and less complex, leaving the wearer hands-free to do other tasks. This means convenient communication and access to information while working in spaces like the International Space Station. With further testing, airplane mission controllers and industrial workers might also be able to use the device.
Devereaux and a small team of engineers have been working on the electronic aspect of the wearable computer for three years; however, they have yet to figure out one critical issue—what should a wearable computer look like?
"It wasn't so much the electronics but the packaging that ended up being the big unknown area when we were trying to turn this into something that could be used," she said. "The big issue for us, because JPL doesn't do a lot of work with astronauts, was how to make the system practical. We were focused on the technical aspects of the device but we had all these questions on the design, like what should the headset be composed of? How do you interact with the headset? How heavy is too heavy? How hot is too hot?"
The current design consists of a small, wearable box with a generic video outlet that is linkable to a headset and an eyepiece. Inside the eyepiece, the wearer sees a computer screen that appears to be a few feet away. The ultimate product, however, could take on a new look—from displays, microphones and headsets to earphones, wrist devices and data gloves.
"We're always looking for better ideas on how all of the wearable pieces should work," she said.
Shopping for 'Designer' Goods
To come up with a practical design, the engineering team has been looking to outside sources like companies and educational institutions.
"We want to take the best of what other people are doing and incorporate that in our project to give people the best system possible," said Devereaux.
One of these sources is a group of advanced product design students at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Headed by their instructor, Susmita Mohanty, the students spent the last three months working on new designs for the wearable computer system.
"We like to take on real-life projects dealing with space, like transportation vehicles and habitat design projects," said Mohanty. "Our goal is to bridge NASA to a new generation of space designers and architects."
Mohanty contacted Devereaux after reading about the wearable computer device on the JPL Web site. Mohanty introduced the students to how astronauts live and work in a zero gravity environment and what the requirements are for designing space products worn by humans. Devereaux gave them a lecture discussing her team's goals and other factors the students should think about when designing the system for astronauts.
"It's good training for students to look at different issues when designing," said Devereaux. "I tried to be very, very broad in terms of not letting my expectations of what the device might look like influence their creativity."
The students will present Devereaux with their final design in a few weeks. In the meantime, Devereaux continues to work on making the system practical for flights and accessible to multiple users. She hopes to have a prototype done within the next year.
"We've done testing in trailers and simulators on Earth, but our goals within the next couple years are to test the device on an airplane, and then ultimately on the space shuttle."