What will be the hot fashion accessories of the next millennium? Something inspired by Gucci? Created by Calvin? InfoCharms, a Southern California-based tech company, predicts wearable computers will become de rigueur among the hipster set.
At Internet trade shows around the world, fashion models have been strutting down runways with tech devices around their arms, clipped to shirts, and dangling from their ears. InfoCharms, an MIT Media Lab spin-off that develops wearable computers, has set out to popularize Internet-enabled jewelry through its series of fashion shows, called "Brave New Unwired World," at Internet World conferences.
This necklace blinks or plays sounds when e-mail messages or pages are received.
The company's first product, Smart Badge, worn on shirts, lets individuals swap electronic business cards through infrared beams by simply standing in front of each other.
Sound like something James Bond's trusty Q developed? That shouldn't come as a surprise since InfoCharms cofounder Katrina Barillova has a background that reads like spy thriller. Barillova, a former fashion model, was trained in Communist Czechoslovakia to be an intelligence agent and became an executive protection specialist in the U.S. after the Velvet Revolution. She'd often pose as a model at parties, wearing listening devices sewn into specially designed clothes.
Or do InfoCharms devices suggest Trekkie wear? "I was inspired by Star Trek communicators," admits Alex Lightman, CEO and cofounder of InfoCharms. Lightman, an MIT graduate, previously developed virtual reality entertainment and 3-D for science fiction and action movie Web sites.
A built-in vocoder allows the wearer to dictate e-mail messages.
Smart Badges make their debut at the Internet Everywhere CEO Summit in late February. InfoCharms plans to lease the devices to conferences -- starting with the company's partner, Internet World -- for less than $10 each for a three-day event. Attendees would receive a Smart Badge when they register and turn them in at the end of the conference after they've downloaded all the information they've collected.
InfoCharms also has plans for a wearable 600-megahertz personal digital assistant, called the StrongCharm, as well as an array of microperipherals that could be connected wirelessly.
By 2003, there will be more than 1 billion wireless devices, 15% of which will connect to the Internet, according to estimates from Ericsson Cyberlabs. But few companies have yet delved into wearables.
Equipped with infrared transceivers, this pin can store, transmit, and receive voice mail messages, business card data, and reminders.
Xybernaut Corp. makes wearable computer systems, but primarily for automotive, shipping, and aerospace workers and at considerably higher prices than InfoCharms' devices. Motorola, Philips, Nokia, Sony, and Ericsson are also expected to announce wearable computers soon.
Lightman isn't just interested in futuristic couture. He sees inexpensive, ultrasmall Internet appliances helping to create a better society.
"The year 2000 will be very important in the battle between the inward Internet and the outward Internet," Lightman says. "Companies involved in patents and monopolies want the inward Internet to prevail; companies like us want an outward Internet -- free bandwidth, open source [code], access for everyone.
"We want to make the Internet affordable, safe, and fun," he says. "Technology starts to pay off when everyone is connected. That's the revolution that InfoCharms is leading."
Conceptual prototypes designed by Michael De Medine for InfoCharms. Photos from the Brave New Unwired World fashion show.