IBM gets fashionable with wearable cell phone

The company once famous for its white shirt-black tie uniforms is leaping into the world of fashion with prototype digital jewelry that could be either the best thing in nerdwear since pocket protectors or one of the most annoying inventions of our time.

At a recent high-tech fashion show, IBM gave a sneak peek at a matching set of silver earrings, necklace, watch, and ring that at first glance looks like ordinary jewelry. The set is actually a wearable cell phone.

Here’s how it works: Instead of hearing your cell phone squeal when you get a call, a tiny light starts blinking on your ring. The phone number of the person calling is displayed on the watch. You answer the phone by pressing a button on your watch. Next, you hear the call through your earring, which has a tiny speaker embedded in it. You then speak to the necklace, which has a tiny microphone inside and acts as a mouthpiece. Secret agents will love it. Whether your neighbors on the bus will groove to it is another question.

“Technology to make this prototype is here today,” says Michael Karasick, chief technology officer and director of architecture for IBM’s Pervasive Computing division.

Wired clothing, such as jackets lined with cell phones and cloth that can display digital image, is being developed by a players ranging from Levi Strauss to Xerox. But IBM’s jewelry takes functional fashion to a new level.

The matching set is part of IBM’s growing family of prototype digital jewelry. The connected high-tech fashion is being developed under the auspices of IBM’s Pervasive Computing division. Its ambition is to network everything under the sun, ranging from nose rings to coffee pots and car stereos. Then, each is linked to one colossal IBM network.

The cell phone/jewelry set is the second jewelry prototype IBM has rolled out. In 1999, IBM unveiled a WatchPad – a personal information manager that resides on your wrist. The watch product can synchronize data and images with a handheld device or PC via wireless connections.

But the jewelry products are tame compared to some of the things under development at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in California. There, IBM researchers have developed a sugar cube-sized wearable camera that mounts onto eyeglasses for taking digital pictures anytime anyplace. Then there’s the wallet-sized Person Area Network device. It uses natural electrical conductivity of the human body to transmit digital data. As you’re wearing your PAN, you can swap data with other PAN owners via a simple handshake. This could put a whole new spin on hacking and computer viruses.

IBM is also working on “emotion sensing,” which relies on biosensors that monitor body temperature, heartbeat, and ultimately moods. Data can then be blasted wirelessly over the Internet to, perhaps, a spouse trying to determine whether tonight is a good time to break some bad news. It can help you gauge, for example, how she’ll welcome that wearable cell phone for her birthday, instead of the diamond tennis bracelet she’s been eyeing.

The impetus behind making digital jewelry is that wireless devices are getting harder to use because of small screens and tiny inputs, say IBM representatives. IBM wants to reinvent the interface of cell phone and personal digital assistant and make them more transparent. It’s doing this by putting VGA screens on watches, embedding a microphone in a broach, or outfitting a ring with a pointing device that can act like a TrackPoint.

Karasick admits that IBM still has a few technology wrinkles to iron out. For example, IBM still hasn’t invented a powerful enough miniature rechargeable battery for its army of tiny Internet-enabled wearables. After all, do you want to have to recharge your earrings while you’re at work? Who will make, market, sell these types of devices is also far from clear.

But if IBM decides that digital clothing is an interesting area to explore, one can only hope that it’ll consider a cocktail dress made with Big Blue velvet.