Fashion may never be the same again. Within 5 years, cyber visors, e-vests, memory glasses, wrist computers and other electronic devices are expected to be as much a part of the fashion scene as jewelry or neckties are today. Wearable computing technology is predicted to be the next craze to hit the consumer electronics market, with demand comparable to the recent cell phone fad.

By 2007, Gartner Inc. (Stamford, CT) predicts that more than 60 percent of people aged 15 to 50 in Europe and the United States will "carry or wear a wireless computing and communications device at least 6 hours a day." The number of users will jump to 75 percent by 2010.

According to Jackie Fenn, a Gartner market research analyst for advanced technologies and applications, wearable computing and communication devices will resemble a mobile phone more than it will today’s computers. She says the most likely configuration will be a small device with processing, storage and transmission capabilities, linked wirelessly to an ear-mounted speaker and microphone, that provides interaction through voice recognition.

Although wearable computers have been available for industrial applications since the early 1990s, Fenn predicts that cheap devices and general purpose software will make the technology appealing to consumers. She says wearable computing represents the next big step in the evolution toward the always on, always active, always connected environment of the future.

Alex Pentland, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory (Cambridge, MA), believes wearable devices will become "an invisible, reliable assistant or aide-de-camp that understands the user’s task, goals and preferences, and uses this knowledge to provide assistance when necessary." To be adopted by mass markets, wearable devices must become completely integrated with the user, "so as not to appear unusual or prevent standard physical interactions such as shaking hands," says Pentland.

Xybernaut Corp. (Fairfax, VA) recently unveiled the first wearable computer for consumers in the United States. The Poma is a "personal optical mobile assistant" that was developed by Hitachi Ltd. (Tokyo). It runs on a version of Microsoft Windows.

The $1,500 hands-free wearable computer includes a body-worn, voice-activated, high-power processor and a video graphics array (VGA) color flat panel or head-mounted color display with microphone and eyepiece, through which users see a video display. The battery-powered central computer weighs less than 2 pounds and clips onto a vest or belt.

The 1.1-inch head-mount display gives users the illusion that there is a 13-inch color screen in front of their faces. Users operate the device via a handheld optical mouse.

Other companies are experimenting with a wide variety of wearable devices that they expect to market sometime within the next 2 years. Citizen Watch Co. (Tokyo) and IBM Corp. (Armonk, NY) have developed a prototype wearable computer called WatchPad. It uses a VGA screen that is capable of displaying text, photos and animation. It features Bluetooth and infrared wireless connectivity, plus speaker, microphone and fingerprint-sensor functions.

Sony Corp. (Tokyo) is developing a device called GestureWrist. It is a wristwatch-type input device that recognizes human gestures by measuring changes in wrist shape and forearm movements. Networked to a visual display, GestureWrist could serve as the user’s virtual mouse.

Another Sony device, called GesturePad, is designed to be inserted into traditional clothing. It features a thin layer of sensor electrodes than can detect finger motions applied to the outside of clothing fabric. A GesturePad inserted into the lapel of a sport coat could control the scroll bar of a Web page being projected from eyewear.