How Digital Jewelry Will Work

By: Kevin Bonsor
By the end of the decade, we could be wearing our computers instead of sitting in front of them. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
Photo courtesy IBM

Jewelry is worn for many reasons -- for aesthetics, to impress others, or as a symbol of affiliation or commitment. Basically, jewelry adorns the body, and has very little practical purpose. However, researchers are looking to change the way we think about the beads and bobbles we wear. In the next wave of mobile computing devices, our jewelry might double as our cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and GPS receivers.

The combination of shrinking computer devices and increasing computer power has allowed several companies to begin producing fashion jewelry with embedded intelligence. Today, manufacturers can place millions of transistors on a microchip, which can be used to make small devices that store tons of digital data. Researchers have already created an array of digital-jewelry prototypes. "We've made one of almost everything except tongue rings," says Dan Russell, senior manager of IBM's Almaden Research Lab, where IBM is developing digital-jewelry technology.


Russell says that digital jewelry is the beginning of the disintegration of the personal computer into tiny pieces. In this edition of How Stuff WILL Work, you will get a look at these new microdevices that could soon be adorning your body, and see how they will make daily communication and computing even more ubiquitous.

Give Me a Ring

Cell phones will one day be comprised of digital accessories that work together through wireless connections.
Photo courtesy IBM

Soon, cell phones will take a totally new form, appearing to have no form at all. Instead of one single device, cell phones will be broken up into their basic components and packaged as various pieces of digital jewelry. Each piece of jewelry will contain a fraction of the components found in a conventional mobile phone, according to IBM. Together, the digital-jewelry cell phone should work just like a conventional cell phone.

Let's look at the various components that are inside a cell phone:


  • Microphone
  • Receiver
  • Touchpad
  • Display
  • Circuit board
  • Antenna
  • Battery

IBM has developed a prototype of a cell phone that consists of several pieces of digital jewelry that will work together wirelessly, possibly with Bluetooth wireless technology, to perform the functions of the above components.

Here are the pieces of IBM's computerized-jewelry phone and their functions:

  • Earrings - Speakers embedded into these earrings will be the phone's receiver.
  • Necklace - Users will talk into the necklace's embedded microphone.
  • Ring - Perhaps the most interesting piece of the phone, this "magic decoder ring" is equipped with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that flash to indicate an incoming call. It can also be programmed to flash different colors to identify a particular caller or indicate the importance of a call.
  • Bracelet - Equipped with a video graphics array (VGA) display, this wrist display could also be used as a caller identifier that flashes the name and phone number of the caller.

With a jewelry phone, the keypad and dialing function could be integrated into the bracelet, or else dumped altogether -- it's likely that voice-recognition software will be used to make calls, a capability that is already commonplace in many of today's cell phones. Simply say the name of the person you want to call and the phone will dial that person. IBM is also working on a miniature rechargeable battery to power these components. Click here to see a RealPlayer video about IBM's digital-jewelry project.

IBM's magic decoder rings will flash when you get a call.
Photo courtesy IBM

In addition to changing the way we make phone calls, digital jewelry will also affect how we deal with the ever-increasing bombardment of e-mail. Imagine that the same ring that flashes for phone calls could also inform you that e-mail is piling up in your inbox. This flashing alert could also indicate the urgency of the e-mail. In the next section, we will look at an IBM ring intended to change the way you interface with your computer.


Of Mice and Monitors

IBM has developed a prototype bracelet display.
Photo courtesy IBM

Two of the most identifiable components of a personal computer are the mouse and monitor. These devices are as familiar to us today as a television set. However, in the next decade, we could witness the disappearance of these devices, at least in their current form. Several companies, including IBM and Charmed Technology, are working on ways to create a head-mounted display. IBM is also working to shrink the computer mouse to the size of a ring and create a wrist-worn display.

The mouse-ring that IBM is developing will use the company's TrackPoint technology to wirelessly move the cursor on a computer-monitor display. You're probably most familiar with TrackPoint as the little button embedded in the keyboard of some laptops. IBM Researchers have transferred TrackPoint technology to a ring, which looks something like a black-pearl ring. On top of the ring is a little black ball that users will swivel to move the cursor, in the same way that the TrackPoint button on a laptop is used.


This TrackPoint ring will be very valuable when monitors shrink to the the size of watch face. In the coming age of ubiquitous computing, displays will no longer be tied to desktops or wall screens. Instead, you'll wear the display like a pair of sunglasses or a bracelet. Researchers are overcoming several obstacles facing these new wearable displays, the most important of which is the readability of information displayed on these tiny devices.

While IBM is in the development stage, Charmed Technology is already marketing its digital jewelry, including a futuristic-looking eyepiece display. The eyepiece is the display component of the company's Charmed Communicator, a wearable, wireless, broadband-Internet device that can be controlled by voice, pen or handheld keypad. The company says that the device could be ready for the mainstream market by the end of 2001 or early 2002. The Communicator can be used as an MP3 player, video player and cell phone. The Communicator runs on the company's Linux-based Nanix operating system.

The eyepiece above displays images and data received wirelessly from the Communicator's belt module.


The Java Ring

The Java Ring can be programmed to give you access to every door and device.
Photo courtesy Dallas Semiconductor

It seems that everything we access today is under lock and key. Even the devices we use are protected by passwords. It can be frustrating trying to keep with all of the passwords and keys needed to access any door or computer program. Dallas Semiconductor is developing a new Java-based, computerized ring that will automatically unlock doors and log on to computers.

The Java Ring, first introduced at JavaOne Conference, has been tested at Celebration School, an innovative K-12 school just outside Orlando, FL. The rings given to students are programmed with Java applets that communicate with host applications on networked systems. Applets are small applications that are designed to be run within another application. The Java Ring is snapped into a reader, called a Blue Dot receptor, to allow communication between a host system and the Java Ring.


The Java Ring is a stainless-steel ring, 16-millimeters (0.6 inches) in diameter, that houses a 1-million-transistor processor, called an iButton. The ring has 134 KB of RAM, 32 KB of ROM, a real-time clock and a Java virtual machine, which is a piece of software that recognizes the Java language and translates it for the user's computer system.

At Celebration School, the rings have been programmed to store electronic cash to pay for lunches, automatically unlock doors, take attendance, store a student's medical information and allow students to check out books. All of this information is stored on the ring's iButton. Students simply press the signet of their Java Ring against the Blue Dot receptor, and the system connected to the receptor performs the function that the applet instructs it to. In the future, the Java Ring may start your car.

Mobile computing is beginning to break the chains that tie us to our desks, but many of today's mobile devices can still be a bit awkward to carry around. In the next age of computing, we will see an explosion of computer parts across our bodies, rather than across our desktops. Digital jewelry, designed to supplement the personal computer, will be the evolution in digital technology that makes computer elements entirely compatible with the human form.