SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. Wearable computers need a nanosize operating system. That's the philosophy of MIT spin-off InfoCharms Inc., which will describe Nanux, its forthcoming wearable-computer OS, later this month at the Everywhere Internet show in San Francisco.
"There are a whole set of problems that are unique to wearable computers but that must be faced by an operating system," said Alex Lightman, chief executive officer at InfoCharms, which is readying a brooch-style Internet-ready communicator based on the slimmed-down Linux-like OS for release next year. "We hope that Nanux will become the Linux of wearable computers."
Nanux will make use of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). The company has already shown prototypes of designs using "open standards" for inexpensive development.
InfoCharms' debut product, which does not yet support Nanux, is a wearable Smart Badge for conference attendees. The unit can communicate with other Smart Badges to exchange electronic business cards, for example, or to reveal social affinities, such as shared hobbies, between badge wearers in a secret code only the wearer can understand.
"We allow you to program your own code for what your badge does when it perceives an affinity between you and another badge wearer, so that you don't become embarrassed at others' seeing your evaluations of them," said Lightman.
Behind closed doors
InfoCharms will suggest to conference attendees that badge wearers program their secret codes themselves, in the privacy of their hotel rooms. Demographic and other pertinent information about each badge wearer such as hobbies will already have been downloaded into each Smart Badge at registration.
The 1-ounce, 2.5-inch-diameter badge packs four two-tone red/green LEDs, infrared receivers and transmitters, a watch battery, and four binary buttons for programming secret codes. A 4-bit microcontroller uses 16 kbytes of semiconductor memory for all software and for the information the badge gathers from other badges.
When a badge's memory becomes full or when the wearer is ready to leave the conference, a show-floor kiosk allows the user to dump the badge's accumulated electronic business cards and related affinities onto printers or removable disks to take home to a PC or personal digital assistant.
In the future, InfoCharms hopes to migrate to a more powerful microprocessor that will enable the badge to run the Nanux operating system. The next-generation badge will be able to download and filter information from the Internet by virtue of its infrared receivers. A small speaker and GPS module will let the communicator filter out irrelevant information, winnowing descriptions to those that pertain to nearby booths as the wearer walks the show floor.
The real target of InfoCharms' Nanux OS, however, is its Charm Communicator a brooch containing an Intel StrongARM processor, semiconductor memory; wireless Internet (IEEE-802.11) connectivity; audio output circuitry; and an expansion bus for adding GPS, remote control, MP3, Internet telephony, keyboard, a 1-Gbyte matchbox-size hard disk and various displays, from flat-panel LCDs to 3-D goggles.
Star Trek style
"We expect people to put on their Charm Communicator in the morning and leave them on all day, maybe plugging or unplugging four or five different modules into and out of it in the course of the day," said Lightman. The Star Trek communicator-style device will be "on" constantly, for instantaneous access to its computer and the Internet as well as to other smart devices located nearby. For instance, instead of hunting for the remote control, the Charm Communicator could direct a nearby VCR to turn on.
"Once a user becomes familiar with our interface, the wearable computer will become the easiest way to control other nearby smart devices, [allowing such activities as] turning on the TV, dialing the telephone, getting navigation directions or even checking up on the kids," said Lightman.
Depending on which modules have been plugged into it, the Charm Communicator could function as Web browser, cell phone, test instrument, address book, interactive dictionary, camcorder, pager, videogame system or desktop PC replacement. Even in its minimal configuration, the communicator could play live Internet radio broadcasts from anywhere in the world while wirelessly roaming. It could also play downloaded MP3 songs when a mass storage device is plugged in. The optional head-mounted display, or a lowly LCD screen, will run such desktop applications as word processors, spreadsheets, calendars and games, hands-free environment, effectively replacing the user's desktop computer.
By mid-2000, Smart Badges are to be in mass production, bringing costs below $10. By 2001, the Charm Communicator will debut, with the first implementation of the Nanux OS for wearable computers.
Hands-free interfaces will include speech control, along with smart context-sensitive interfaces and new sensors (for instance, badges that monitor health). Beyond 2002, InfoCharms hopes its inexpensive infrastructure requirements (under $10) will establish its approach among the billions of people worldwide who are too poor to be connected to the Net via conventional means.