Recently, my daughter, Eva, a neurobiologist, told me about an experiment in which a subject wears a belt that is ringed with tiny motors like the ones that make cell phones vibrate. It also has a battery and a digital-compass circuit board. The compass triggers the northern-most motor to buzz.
Annoying, at first, but gradually the subject tunes the buzzing out—except the wearer develops an unerring sense of magnetic north, all the time. The provocative question, though, is whether the constant feedback can awaken a dormant ability in humans to sense magnetic fields, and whether the wearer can retain that sense of north after the belt comes off.
Then Eva, who studies the evolution of sensory systems in animals, called again to tell me she found a gizmo developer who sells anklet versions of the magnetic belts as kits. I got one him to send me one and Eva and I tried it out.
Magical success is elusive and the NorthPaw anklet is no exception. Expecting a magnetic-sensing anklet to perform well in the steel- and radio-frequency-interference rich streets and subways of Midtown Manhattan is asking a lot. We had some pretty inconsistent results. But when we got away from the magnetic distractions it behaved consistently and well. I could point my foot toward north with great confidence.
It was clearly a prototype, though, and clunky, with a plastic box and a battery strapped onto a cloth and Velcro strap. But basically, it worked; although when I finally stopped wearing it I saw no evidence that my innate sense of north was any better or worse than it ever was.
In another personal experiment with wearable computing devices, I also spent a few weeks last fall wearing a little homing device called a PockeFinder that lets me go to a Web browser and pull up a mapped history of everywhere I have been, in five-minute increments, for any date I please. I can print out a PDF with data about latitude and longitude, address, speed, etc.
I don't know why I did it, except that I found it almost became second nature to slip it on my belt in the morning and forget it, which is one of the hallmarks of good technology. It serves a purpose and you forget it is there.
I showed it to Kit Miyamoto, the international seismic disaster response and mitigation expert, when we ran into each other in Amsterdam at the Bentley Be Inspired conference in November. He thought it had great promise for work in the disaster relief field. I captured our ambles together around Amsterdam between conference sessions in my log. It is accurate to within a few feet.
Tying all of this back to my beat as the IT editor at ENR is a bit of a challenge, though. But in the end, construction is all about locations. We build things in places. Material moves from place to place and workers are either here or there. Tools that can track things and people, and let us know where people and things are in relation to one another have implications for construction. And people are beginning to find applications.
Indeed, IDTechEx, a UK-based technology research and consultancy organization, forecasts that the real-time location services market will rise from $255 million to $293 million in 2012 but then power up to nearly $4 billion in 2022.
And wearable computing devices that serve you, yet are so unobtrusive you forget they are there, meet the gold standard of good technology.