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The Vice-Prez Sez

Karl Lunt

PBS (channel 9 for those of you in the Puget Sound area) just started a new season of Scientific American Frontiers. Alan Alda hosts this hour-long tour of science and technology, and the first show of the new season aired last Wednesday (October 23rd).

As is its custom, the first SAF visited the MIT campus to see what's going on in Cambridge. This show spent most of the time looking at various projects in the MIT Media Lab, a showcase of emerging technologies in gathering and distributing data and in designing new man-machine interfaces.

I really enjoyed the Wearable Computer project: an attempt to integrate a full Windows- or UNIX based computer with a walking, talking human. Half a dozen MIT students wander the campus, fully functional elements of the Internet, complete with video cameras, Internet addresses, and real-time links to the rest of the world.

These students, who call themselves Cyborgs, wear a 486 (or higher) SEC in a backpack, complete with hard drive. Video display is usually a heads-up display built around a Private Eye device. The "keyboard" of choice is the Twiddler, a one-hand chording keyboard-and-mouse unit available from Handykey Co. of New York. Links to the Internet occur through a 900 MHz spread spectrum modem to a local intranet. Power is provided by an in-pack gel-cell.

The MIT hackers have taken great pains to reduce the current consumption, and therefore the battery size, as much as possible. Some of the newer 486 SBCs require less than an amp at 5 VDC. Add power-down control of hungry devices such as the hard drive, and you can get a lot of life out of a modest battery.

The parallels between wearable computing and robots are obvious. Strip off the video display and keyboard, add some motors and sensors, and you have a rollable computer. Many of the SBCs come complete with high-speed serial and parallel ports, as well as IDE and floppy interfaces, already on board. So any motor controllers that run on your PC's parallel port would transfer straight across to

You can even get SBCs with built-in DOS and a RAM drive. If you design your programs properly, this might be all the storage space you need, letting you dispense with the power-hungry and fragile hard drive. And if you can track down an SEC that handles PCMCIA cards, you can use the cards as a transfer medium. They would take up less space and weigh less than a floppy drive, further reducing power demands when rolling the 'hot around.

As for software tools, the sky's the limit. Write your code in nearly anything, generate an .EXE file, save it on a floppy or RAM card, then drop it into the ‘bot. And you can take advantage of all the compilers and interpreters laying around for DOS, in languages such as Basic, Forth, C, or (eewww!) COBOL.

A few of you are reading this and saying to yourselves, "This is old stuff; this has been possible for years". Possible, yes, but not presented in-your face and actually working the way the Cyborgs did it. In pulling all of this technology together, they solved a lot of the nasty, red-world problems that get glossed over or not even noticed in the theoretical discussions.

For example, one of the students wore a felt cloth hat with a cellular phone antenna sticking out of the top. When Alan Alda asked about it, the guy showed the inside of the hat, fitted with a fine mesh of copper screen. This provided a ground plane for his 900 MHz RF modem, improving his mobile reception range.

For more info on wearable technology, check out the Media Labs' web pages by pointing your browsers at:


And you can get the skinny on upcoming Scientific American Frontiers shows by aiming at:


But now I need to look for a suitable 486 SEC for my new robot I'm designing. Let's see, where