Tokyo tries out jacket with PC in its sleeve

CIOL Bureau
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Akiko Mori


TOKYO: Twenty-five-year-old Mari Taniuchi enters Tokyo's ultra-hip Shibuya

district and glances at a tiny computer screen bolted on her jacket sleeve.

A map of the area lights up. She sifts through information on places to eat

and shop, tapping a key pad woven into her cuff, as music plays from headphones

wired through her collar.

Her padded white jacket reflects the latest in Japanese streetware -- a

hybrid of fashion and technology that has its roots in a concept that has never

quite worked: the "wearable PC". "Our country has always been

good at downsizing electronics gadgets," said Michie Sone, who created

Taniuchi's jacket in collaboration with electronics group Pioneer Corp.


Although the jacket is still under development and is not yet commercially

available, fusing high-tech accessories with clothing is seen as an inevitable

step in Japan's fast-moving fashion industry.

Sone taught at Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College until last year when she began

spearheading a 30-million-yen ($222,500) project to develop high-tech fashion

with electronics companies like Pioneer.

She hopes to design the ultimate ready-to-wear clothing that offers the

functionality of cell phones, personal data assistants (PDAs), laptops, mobile

data network systems or MP3 players.


She admits it's a challenge but says Japan's twin obsessions with fashion and

technology could produce a fertile market. Attempts so far at the "wearable

PC" have been fashion flops, often built by computer engineers focused more

on chips than hips and confined to factories or university laboratories.

Sone, a 64-year-old designer with bright blue dyed hair, wants the concept to

gain mass appeal. She's even coined a new term for it: "media


"Tokyo is the only quirky market for fun fashion right now," she

says. Her biggest financial backer is the government of Gifu prefecture of

central Japan, which hopes "media fashion" can help revive its

once-booming garment towns.


She is also hoping for support from the national government.

Foldable and washable?

A key challenge is to develop a water-proof fabric-like display that can be
folded up without losing its functionality. To that end, Pioneer Corp sees

Sone's project as an outlet for 10 years of research on ultra-thin displays that

are flexible enough to be embedded in clothing.


It plans to showcase its latest heat-proof organic light-emitting diode (OLED)

screen at a November 2002 "media fashion" show backed by Gifu


"By then, we want to add more functions like music and cell phones to

the jacket," said Pioneer's industrial designer, Naoki Harasawa, referring

to the jacket worn by Taniuchi.

"To get rid of cords and weight, we have to work on such themes as

wireless technology that can transfer loads of data and batteries that can last

longer," he said. "The next challenge is washable displays."


Marketing is key

Marketing will also be a challenge for "wearable PCs" because of their
expected high price tag. Electronics maker Hitachi Ltd. plans to launch what it

describes as "the world's first consumer wearable PC" next month at a

price of 300,000 yen ($2,254), initially for industrial use in factories.

Hitachi's "Wearable Internet Appliance" includes an 80 gram (2.8

ounce) head-mounted computer screen that includes a lens covering one eye. This

is wired to a battery-operated mini-PC that can be clipped onto a belt or hidden

in a pocket.


It's not exactly couture fashion. But US-based wearable PC pioneer Xybernaut

Co, which owns patents for some Hitachi product, has already started marketing

it for consumers in the United States.

The aim is to give workers more flexibility while assembling products. To

check a manual or the Internet, information can be accessed through a wireless

local area network. The mini-PC itself can be manipulated through a small

hand-held device.

"I think people would wear it if Hitachi gets around to marketing it as

a fashion statement," said Yoshimochi Obata, a keen fashion watcher at

Tokyo-based Web Style Research Institute.

But a "wearable PC" with appeal for the masses would need to

include both a portable music player and an Internet-equipped mobile phone while

still looking stylish, he said. Mobile phones are already a fashion statement in


NTT DoCoMo Inc's "i-mode" phones have more than 30 million

subscribers. Their improving ergonomics such as multi-colour displays have

helped users warm up to a mind-boggling array of functions. "Armed with

mobility and a futuristic design, wearable PCs can be Japan's next i-mode,"

said Sone.

(C) Reuters Limited.