San Mateo County Times

Future PC the size of a button?
Friday, May 15, 1999

By Liz Garone

STANFORD - Professor Vaugh Pratt is a man with an obsession: to shrink the per sonal computer to an undetectable size, say, that of a shirt button.

He most likely will achieve that goal with a glove and a room the size of a walkin closet. Pratt heads the Wearables Lab in Stanford University's Computer Science de partment.

Wearable computers, in some form or an other, have been around for a number of years. But they have tended to be bulky and obtru sive, consisting of weighty headgear, antennas, thick vests and waist packs.

And developing a practical way to input data without a keyboard has always been a problem.

But now Pratt thinks he may have found the answer.

"One types not just with the hand but on the hand," he explained, gesturing with a knitted glove, a $2 hardware store purchase.

Attached to the glove are sensors. By touching a thumb to the sensors, located on the tip, middle and base of each finger, and by grouping the fingers in different ways, the user can "type" letters and punctuation. All 96 characters found on a conventional keyboard are included in Pratt's digital sign language, which he has dubbed "thumbcode."

The data glove is a prototype, but Pratt envisions a day when people will use a glove -- or their bare fingers and thumb -- to type. Con ventional computer keyboards would become obsolete. Using wireless technology, the sen sors communicate with a pocket-sized PC, an other aspect of Pratt's research.

His most recent claim to fame was squeezing the hardware and software needed to run a Web site into a package smaller than a credit card. The world's tiniest Web server has been up and running since the end of January. It sits under a desk in Pratt's lab. A conven tional server is 3,000 times its size.

In the first week alone, the Wearables Lab Web page (, which Pratt runs off the server, logged more than 83,000 visitors.

Much of Pratt's current research focuses on integrating the glove with a 66-Mhz, matchboxsized PC similar in size and scope to the server. Using the glove and PC in tandem, a person could place the computer into a shirt pocket, slip on the glove, walk down the street, and type e-mail messages -- or chapters to a novel, Pratt said.

"You could be talking to someone, and they wouldn't even know," he said, "other than a few twitches."

Pratt isn't finished shrinking computers yet; eventually, they could be dime-sized.

"Ultimately, we would like to shrink this into shirt buttons," he said, dangling the server between two fingers. "Shirt buttons would all be talking to each other, running pi to a million digits, checking answering machines at home, navigating in the car, basically whatever you now usually do with your computer."

No longer hampered by a keyboard, a person engaged in thumbcode has one free hand. The drawback of this is it slows typing speed to halftime: about 30 words per minute, according to Pratt. "But what can you expect?' he asked. "You're only using half your hands."

The glove is still in the early development stage, and Pratt doesn't expect it ready anytime soon; he's currently at work on the matchbox PC.

In the meantime, wearable computer users have been using a device called the Handykey Twiddler, which can be purchased on the Web for $199. The Twiddler, first marketed in 1992, is a combination keyboard and mouse. It weighs four ounces and fits in one's palm.

Steve Mann and Thad Starner, pioneers in the wearable computers field, swear by the Twiddler. Starner, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, even wrote his Ph.D. thesis using a Twiddler. And Dave Oertel, a Sil icon Valley software engineer, wrote a 30,000line program with a Twiddler while he was lying on the grass outside the Palo Alto library, according to Chris George, president of Handykey.

George has been corresponding with Pratt by e-mail about their two vastly different -- but potentially compatible -- technologies. "Who knows," said George. "A combo Twiddler and thumbcode may emerge down the line."

Still, George was quick to point out that thumbcode is only an idea -- not yet a product. "There's a long way between the two," he said.

Pratt is well-aware that the public might still equate his inventions with science fiction.

"Yes, this is science fiction," he said. "But you have to have something to aim for. You can't say 'Well, we're there now. Let's sit back on our laurels.' You have to keep looking into the future."

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