Hack This Look

A Wearable Computer For The Moderately Tech Savvy

So, lately I’ve been getting questions about some pictures I’ve posted of myself, as well as tweets about my wearable computer situation. How does it work? Does it work? Where did I get it? Does it work.

It does work, and I put it together out of off-the-shelf consumer electronics, which I’ll link to below. Please note I’m using Amazon affiliate links throughout this post — if something sounds useful to you and you click on it and buy it, then I get a small advertising commission, which I will probably blow on alcohol. So by all means, proceed.

My target here is people who, like me, are moderately tech savvy: not afraid of computers, a heavy user of them, and interested in taking them further, but not devoted to learning the technical ins and outs

A little background: I got into wearable technology for the same reason anybody does: I want the ability to beam my own personal power song directly into my brainpan 24/7, like I’m a character on Ally McBeal. That’s a very common problem so it’s also one that has a ready solution: bone conduction headphones. They allow you to hear audio from a paired device while leaving your ears open, and if you have a propensity towards hats and wigs, you can wear them anywhere without notice.

I’d never seen the point of Bluetooth headphones before – one more device to keep charged, one more valuable piece of hardware to lose – but once I figured out a use for them, I found a whole lot more uses. I also finally found a use for a digital assistant, as I could use my headphones to interact in a limited way with my phone without pulling it out. Voice commands allowed me to get more out of the basic function of the headphones, as I could control playback in more sophisticated ways than the buttons on the headphones allowed.

Soon after I added a Galaxy Watch to my gear loadout, which also extended my ability to interact with and receive information for my phone without laying hands on it. At around the same time, I invested in a Microsoft Universal folding keyboard, a lightweight and sturdy laptop-sized keyboard I could use to type on my phone anywhere there was a flat surface. This let me leave the laptop at home when I was going somewhere to write.

Not long after that, I discovered the Vufine, a wearable display device that I could use to keep my phone screen private when writing in public, or get visual information from my phone while walking around. It was at that point I realized that my push towards portability for my writing operations and wearability for my tech were working towards a convergent point.

My dream, my goal, has always been to have total convenience and total continuity in my work environmen.. the ability to pick up my work and take it with me, to continue it anywhere, whether I was sitting on a plane or riding in a car or standing up or laying down or basically anything, ideally with as little a change in the interface and environment as possible.

Cloud computing and mobile technology has done a lot to bring that dream closer to reality, but it hasn’t really got us there. The change in fashions from clicky-clacky physical keyboards to on-screen ones was a backwards step in terms of being able to type comfortably at a decent speed in many positions, and reclining or reposing with a phone held up in front of your face when you’re tired enough to feel like kicking back is a great way to drop a phone on your face.

So, I started to wonder what it would take to put together a wearable computer. Not just wearable technology that interacts with computers, but the whole personal computing experience, prete a porter and ready to go.

Surely that’s the sort of thing you’d need some serious engineering chops to… engineer? That’s for the sort of people who go into Maker Spaces and say, “Excuse me, but you got your Arduino in my Raspberry Pi.” The closest thing we’ve ever had to a wearable computer was Google Glass, and they noped out of the consumer market faster than you could say, “You put a camera on what?

Well, it turns out that we live in the future, and with a little creativity and some willingness to go very slightly outside the intended usage of some of the components, you can put together a fully functional, user-ready, internet-capable wearable computer running Windows 10 and basically any kind of office software you might need for about the price of a laptop.

“Which laptop?” you might ask. Well, I mean, that depends a lot on what you need it to do and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make. There’s a lot of flexibility in some parts of this exercise, but I’m going to say you can have a decent work computer for a writer or blogger or office drone for right around $500.

Which is not nothing! I was very lucky that I already had a number of the necessary components on hand from earlier, incremental steps, and I got some help with the rest. I don’t think the expense would be worth it for everyone.

Instead of trying to explain the use cases for it, I think I’m going to just tell you what it lets you do and then figure that will either appeal to people or not: you can have a computer that can run all day with a screen floating in (but not obstructing) your view, that no one else can see, that you can use anywhere regardless of the presence or absence of any particular working surface. It just works. It goes with you and it works.

So how do you assemble a wearable computer for yourself without having to have any special tools or particular technical chops? The same way you put together a desktop one: you take a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse, and some speakers, and you connect them to a computer tower, and then you plug the monitor and tower in and turn them on. Then you just tidy up the cords a little, let Windows set itself up, and start choosing your desktop wallpaper.

It’s really as simple as that.

I’ll tell you how I did it, in case you would like to do the same. Some caveats: what you’ll get will not be a high-end gaming computer but something more comparable to a decent, reliable netbook. A little slow to run webpages with complicated Uis, fine for office functions, reading, playing videos. You’ll have to adjust some of your expectation about things like comfortable text sizes, but the trade-off is the most portable computing experience you’ll ever… experience.

You’ll be able to watch videos in perfect privacy on a crowded bus or plane. You’ll be answering emails and drafting memos in the backseat of a rideshare. You’ll be able to lie on the couch or in bed and stare at the ceiling while you hammer out your next chapter or blog post in perfect comfort.

Your results will vary, but you may even be able to write an essay while pacing around the house or the backyard. The only two things I’ve really asked for in my life is the ability to write using the same tools and medium whether I’m laying down, sitting comfortably, or walking around, and I can do that. Mission accomplished.

What You Need

Here’s what you need. Once you understand what we’re looking for and why, may substitute other components that serve your needs better. Just make sure you understand the power needs of the main components before you start messing with them or with your power source. The items I’m listing here all play well with each other.

1. A Pocket PC, or some other kind of computer on a stick. These are smaller than cell phones, slightly bigger than (but very similar, in principle and operation) to) a smart TV streaming stick, and you can find ones with similar specs for slightly more or slightly less than the one I linked to, which has 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. You can save some money by going down to 2 GB and/or 32 GB, buuut you’ll be paying more than half price for half the power, and that doesn’t seem like a great trade-off.

Pocket PCs are meant to be portable, not mobile. They’re like the big league version of keeping your work files on a thumb drive, and one step up from having a whole operating system on athumb drive. The idea is you take them somewhere where there is a screen and the necessary peripherals, and plug them in. Our idea is that you take the screen and peripherals with you.

On that note, you’ll need a double-ended HDMI adapter like this one to plug it in to our mobile display, which is…

2. A Vufine+. This is your monitor, and unless you want to spring for more RAM or storage capacity, this is the big ticket item at around $199. You can save $100 by getting the original model Vufine, but that lacks a key feature I think you’re really going to miss: view modes, which lets you adjust zoom by clicking the button on the back of the device. If you’re iffy enough on the Vufine, I’d suggest buying from the website (which touts a 90 day free trial) rather than trying to save money on the cheaper one.

The Vufine has a bit of a learning curve compared to a typical computer monitor, so I’ll be making a blog post with the tips and tricks I’ve picked up. I went from worrying it was an overpriced useless piece of junk on day 1 to finding it super easy and useful about three weeks in.

A possible alternative in the same price range would be this wearable display/VR band from Avegant. It’s got pretty bad reviews as a VR device, but good ones as a personal display. I haven’t been able to try it so I can’t speak to its suitability. I think the pros compared to the Vufine would include less fiddly to position and built-in audio, but more of your vision being obstructed.

I feel like it might be better and easier for some purposes than the Vufine, but worse at others. I’d love to try it but I can’t justify the additional expense when I have a solution that works for me, for most of my use cases. So it’s on my Amazon wishlist for now. I’d be happy to try it out for science.

3. A battery/portable charger that can output enough power to run the Pocket PC. I’ve linked to one that can; just be sure your’e using the USB slot closest to the power input, the one marked with a “Power” symbol. If you skimp on the power supply, your Pocket PC might run erratically and then shut down, or fail to turn on at all. Also make sure the cord you use can handle it! Here’s a pack of cords that have the right end, the right capacity, and are nice and short. I usually like longer cords, but you’re going to be wearing these.

Quick note that unlike an actual mobile device with its own internal battery, you will not see a power remaining display on your wearable computer, so you’ll want to check your battery’s power level indicator from time to time. That’s a little inconvenient, I know, but… I’ve operated my wearable computer from 9:30 in the morning until 1:00 at night and still not run out of power. And by this I mean it was on the whole time. Screen on, Vufine and PC both drawing power from the battery. I’ve never had a laptop or phone that could do that, running off its own power.

4. An input device. Here’s a keyboard/trackpad combo that fits in a lot of pockets and pouches, has some cool backlight features, and is wireless over USB. A neat feature this one has is a scrollwheel, which meeans if you’re reading something you don’t really have to have your eyes or hands on the keyboard properly, just a finger on the wheel.

Normally I prefer Bluetooth but USB will make setup easier, and also this particular keyboard is one of the more ergonomic for use. It’s much lighter than any cellphone but bigger and better spaced than any physical keyboard from the Blackberry era.

If you’ve got something like the Microsoft Universal I mentioned above, then when you do find yourself with a table or desk or counter or tray in front of you, you can plop it down and have a full-sized keyboard. In that event, you can just set your handheld one down next to it and use it as a trackpad.

Sidenote: While I was researching for this, I discovered someone invented a “wearable keyboard and mouse” combo, which is actually a little string of sensors you wear on your fingers. It takes input using a specialized tap code which they claim can be mastered in about an hour and a half. Reviews are mixed. I am intrigued but not willing or in a position to throw money at it to see if it works — I already went out on several limbs getting to this point, and don’t wish to push my luck. So it, too, is wishlisted.

Sidenote to sidenote: If anybody sends me either of the wishlisted items, I will provide a thorough review after testing them.

5. Unless you go with a different HDMI display that includes sound, you will need some kind of audio output. The open-ear bone conduction headphones I mentioned above pair well with the Vufine along the theme of being private while not obstructing your senses, but I prefer to keep those paired with my phone. You can use any Bluetooth earbuds or headphones. I’m not an audiophile, so I can’t make a lot of serious recommendations here. Honestly, this is the one thing on the list you’re most likely to have something suitable on hand.

If you get the specific items I’ve mentioned for 1 to 4 — the Pocket PC, the Vufine+, the charger, and the handheld keyboard/trackpad — you’ve got like $40 left for earphones in order to come in at $500. If you do spring for the open ear ones, it’s more like $600, but you’re upping the cool factor.

Putting It All Together

Depending on what you have on hand, you might spend a little more getting your components safely wearable. Because once you have all of this stuff, it’s time to put it together. The goal is for it to fit safely and comfortable on your body, so parts of this are going to be subjective. Here’s how I do it: I have a cross-body bag that Is small but big enough to hold all this hardware in one little carefully wrapped package.

I wear it with the shoulder strap cinched up fairly high, so that if the battery pack is standing up in the bigger pocket, the power cord from the Vufine can run down to the second slot and have just enough slack to not restrict my movements, not enough slack that it will snag on things. The Vufine touts a 90 minute battey life, which is enough time to crash four or five drones but not nearly long enough if your goal is to have a ubiquitous computer environment.

So, the Vufine’s default configuration is that you take a little band that comes with it and strap it to the arm of your glasses, like you’re some kind of optometrical ornithologist tracking its migration. The Vufine unit has a little round magnetic peg that fits into a round metal divot on the side, and then you can pivot it up and down. The key is you want the screen really close to the lens of your glasses. Once it’s turned on, you can start fine-tuning the placement. The “neck” has got a horizontal adjustment that slides in and out, and you can swivel it up and down.

Now, despite its name, the Pocket PC should not be run inside a pocket. Again, it’s meant to be portable, not mobile. So you want to attach the included loop/strap to the Pocket PC and then hang it off the bag using any kind of secure clip or carabiner. Make sure it’s positioned so that you won’t be running it into door frames or crushing it against arm rests when you sit down – I hang mine towards the front of the bag. I’m also looking at some self-adhesive clip attachments that might let me hook it onto a belt or strap, or the outside of a pocket. As long as the vents are facing outwards, it’s good.

If you’re using the wireless USB keyboard, it’s got a receiver inside the back compartment. Put that in one of your USB slots, and then connect the Pocket PC’s HDMI plug to the Vufine using the Vufine’s cord and the double-ended adapter. Now, this is a pretty long cord, and you’re going to have to deal with that. You can wrap up the excess with a twist tie, you can braid it maypole-style around the strap of your bag. My solution for now is to run the cord under my top and out at my neck – since it hangs down off the bottom of the PC, this works really well. The strap of the bag on top of my shirt helps keep the cord in place once I’ve got it how I want it, which is with enough slack at the bottom and the top that normal movement of the bag/computer and my head doesn’t yank on it.

Once you’ve got everything in place, connect your power supply to the PC and turn it on. If everything worked, a blue light should light up and the fan should come on. It can sound loud in a very quiet room, but any background noise tends to swallow it up. The Vufine turns on with a button at the back of its “stem”.

Turn on your keyboard/mouse combo and you’re ready to go. You might want to adjust some settings in Windows and the apps you use because you’re looking at a very different scale of screen than you’re used to. I’ll have some specific advice in a future blog post. Step one here is just getting a wearable computer together. Actually doing stuff with it is a broader topic.

One thing that will make your life easier while you’re figuring that stuff out and learning how to optimally position the Vufine is understanding its view modes. Each press of the power button cycles through them:

1. The very pretty natural resolution mode, which letterboxes your computer’s display at its normal resolution. Great for watching movies, looking at pictures, etc. Basically, anything visual. Depending on your eyesight and visual preferences, this may be the only view mode you need to use. But while you’re learning how to use the device, it can be hard to position things so you can see the whole screen in this mode.

2. A zoom mode which zooms In on the center of the screen until it reaches the point where the letterboxing is pushed off the screen. In landscape mode, this means the center of the screen is as big as it can get without cutting anything off at the top or bottom. You can’t see the sides of the screen, but this can be really useful for reading some websites.

3. A stretch to fit mode which shows the whole screen, but fills the viewport without cutting anything off. So pictures and videos get slightly squished/stretched, but this is the mode where the screen and any writing on it are easiest to see. I use it for reading and writing most of the time.

I’m going to save the rest of the finer points for later blog posts addressing specific topics. This is just about getting you there. If this catches on and other people do this, I’m sure we’ll all come up with interesting new tricks to get the most out of it.