The WearIT@work Project: Empowering the Mobile Worker with Wearable Computing

by Elisa Basolu, Massimo Busuoli and Mike Lawo

The European Commission Integrated Project wearIT@work was set up to investigate the feasibility of 'wearable computing' as a technology to support the mobile worker. With a total budget of 23.7 million Euro, wearIT@work is the largest project in the world in this area. Based on four different pilot scenarios (emergency, variant production, maintenance and the clinical pathway) the project aims at a user-driven research agenda.

WearIT@work will prove the applicability of computerized clothing, the so-called 'wearables', in several industrial environments. The project is user-centric, paying considerable attention to the needs of the end users. A prime goal is to investigate user acceptance of wearables.
There are different approaches to wearable computing depending on the research direction and the application domain. In the wearIT@work project, a major focus is on the interactions between user, system and environment.

In conventional mobile systems, the interaction is based on a modified version of a desktop human computer interface (HCI) and follows the pattern shown on the left side of the figure. To operate the system, users must focus on the interface. This will capture their attention. Thus, users can either interact with the system or with the environment, but not with both at the same time.

Interaction between the user, the system and the environment in a conventional mobile system (left) and a wearable system (right).
Interaction between the user, the system and the environment in a conventional mobile system (left) and a wearable system (right).

On the contrary, wearable systems allow users to simultaneously interact with the system and the environment. In addition, there is direct interaction between the system and the environment, and the system can mediate the interaction between the user and the environment.

However, four main issues must be addressed in order to implement wearable interaction concepts.

First, the system must be able to interact with the environment through an array of sensors distributed in different parts of the outfit. In particular it must be able to develop a certain degree of awareness of the user's activity, physiological and emotional state, and the situation around her/him. This is often referred to as context awareness.

Second, the user interface needs to be operated with minimal cognitive effort and little or no involvement of the hands. In general, a low cognitive load is achieved through an appropriate use of the context information. Thus, for example, instead of having the user select a function from a complex hierarchy of menus, the system should derive the two most preferable options from the context information and present the user with a simple binary choice. In terms of the actual input modality, simple natural methods such as a nod of the head, a simple gesture, or spoken commands are preferred.

Third, the system should be able to perform a wide range of tasks using context information, without any user interaction at all. This includes system self-configuration tasks as well as automatic retrieval, delivery, and recording of information that might be relevant to the user in a specific situation. A trivial example of a context-dependent reconfiguration could be a mobile phone that automatically switches off the ringer during a meeting.

Lastly, the system must be seamlessly integrated in the outfit so that it neither interferes with the users' physical activity nor affects their appearance in any unpleasant way. This means that, unlike many conventional mobile devices, it can be worn nearly anywhere.

Nearly three years of project research activity remain, but the fundamental steps towards a user-centred design approach, a hardware framework and software platform have already been achieved. With the creation of the Open Wearable Computing Group and the annual International Forum on Applied Wearable Computing, a community building process in industry and science has also been initiated. Although miniaturized and low-power computing devices (as well as ubiquitous wireless communication) are still at an emerging stage, it is our intention to exploit the project in order to encourage the wide adoption of wearable computing technology. We aim to provide a wide spectrum of innovative solutions in order to enable wearable computing to be used at any time, in any place and in any situation. During the project lifetime, a call will be issued for take-up projects to adopt the solutions developed. More information plus details on how to receive the project newsletter with the latest news on developments can be found at the link below.

The wearIT@work collaboration involves 36 R&D groups (mainly from industry), including ENEA, EADS, Skoda, HP, Microsoft, NTT DoCoMo, SAP, Siemens, Thales and Zeiss. The project is coordinated by the Mobile Technology Research Center (TZI) of the University of Bremen.


Please contact:
Elisa Basolu, Massimo Busuoli, ENEA - Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment

Mike Lawo, University of Bremen, Germany