NASA models wearable computers

Playing air guitar and mumbling could be examples of how NASA's future astronauts fly and work in space.

That's because as technology becomes smaller, it's going to become more difficult for "big, fat fingers" to manipulate the high-tech tools astronauts and others will use in their work, said a top scientist with NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

The solution is to control and manipulate the work environment through subtle movements and unspoken words, according to Chuck Jorgensen, chief scientist at Ames' neuroengineering laboratory.

Ames scientists are in the early stages of doing just that.

The agency reported this month that a pilot wearing an armband implanted with sensors simulated the landing of a Boeing 757 jetliner by moving his hand through the air.

But that's just the beginning, Jorgensen said.

"The significance is in wearable computers," he said. Wearable computers today are largely bulky contraptions that people wear on an arm, or a headpiece with a miniature terminal extended out before one eye.

But in the future, especially with the continued development of nanotechnology, wearable computers will be all but hidden.

"So what we're looking at is technology, now in its early stages, to reconnect human beings to machines, but at a different level," Jorgensen said. This does not mean incorporating man and machine. "I'm not into the Borg thing," he said, referring to the hybrid beings seen on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

The aim is to pick up subtle signals from the body — a hand, for example — and send them via sensors to computers trained to "read" them as commands.

In this way, an astronaut outfitted to work in space could operate tools and manage hatches by manipulating his fingers or even silently mouthing the commands, he said. Muscles moving at the back of the astronaut's throat would be recognized as commands, Jorgensen said.

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