Continuing a (very) occasional series on gadgets I would like but that don’t yet seem to exist. This idea started when carving (falling) down the snowy slopes in Verbier over new year. Posh, I know.
We were a big group, all of different skill levels and hence all travelling at different speeds. Navigating the less-than-well mapped slopes was tough. Managing to join up at chosen meeting points even harder without multiple costly and confusing mobile calls. At the same time I was trialling a helmet-mounted (or in my case, head-mounted) camera and listening to music on my iPhone.
As we rode the lifts up to the top for another run we regularly discussed our respective playlists, and I found myself thinking: “ Wouldn’t it be cool if we could all listen to the same playlist?” Clearly all plugging in to the same iPod was never going to work, so the tunes would have to be streamed wirelessly (humour me and ignore the PRS/digital rights implication for a moment).
That got me thinking about a wireless mesh network that would stop us sending high volumes of data over the expensive and less-than-reliable cellular network. Then I figured, wouldn’t it be cool if the network could identify people against their devices (like a Nintendo DS) and allow us to access various social networking features: automatically discovering people in your Facebook friends list when they come in to range (if you have chosen to be discoverable); sharing photos, images and videos (perhaps streamed live from a helmet/lapel mounted camera). Add in a mapping and navigation system and you have an incredibly useful tool.
The wearable bit comes in when you begin to think about the interface for all this. You certainly don’t want a screen and keyboard when you’re hurtling down the slopes, but you will need some sort of button-based affair and a display. Lots of companies have been making iPod and mobile-phone compatible clothing with such arrangements for a while now. Maybe a more sophisticated version of these items could contain a small screen.
Hardware-wise, the ideal is obviously something compact and robust, like a mobile phone. All of the features above could easily be added to a Gphone or iPhone, and probably some already have (BrightKite being a good example). But for something with a little more raw power, easy development and cheap peripherals, a Netbook would be a great start. You could probably assemble the hardware to do everything I list above for under £300 (maybe slightly more with uprated battery and storage).
The techy elements could be incorporated very discretely — certainly into ski-wear — so you wouldn’t look like a total dork. And I think the market for something like this is actually pretty huge. There’s the sports angle (cheap tactical gear for paintballing is one idea a colleague suggested), but also just the kid on the street angle. Revenues could come from all sorts of places — hardware sales; location-based advertising; data backhaul etc. Given that the mesh network would never be the total solution for connectivity, it may even appeal to the mobile operators.
Be interested in any comments. I’m quite tempted to look into funding to see if someone could begin to develop the idea, or at least look at its feasibility.