Smaller and more portable computers have recently been enjoying growing popularity in corporate and consumer markets alike. No longer the stuff of specialized industries or science fiction movies, a new phase of technological devices — wearable computers — will see an even greater variety of applications

and contraptions used in a variety of settings, observers say. No matter what form they take, however, these gadgets will likely share one feature in common: instant communication.

“”The killer app always seems to be people-to-people applications,”” says Jackie Fenn, a fellow with Gartner Inc.’s emerging trends and technology practice in Boston. Fenn sees greater flexibility and networked capabilities as a major component in what she sees as a new form of portable/wearable device, which will have widespread applications. “”I think the mobility angle is what’s driving this thing.””

That feature — mobility — played a key role in a recent research project in Toronto, says Dr. David Kreindler, who helped organize an 18-month study on mood disorders using portable computing devices. Kreindler, a pyschiatrist with the University of Toronto’s department of psychiatry and the Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, worked with three other investigators on the study, which was funded by Bell University Laboratories.

Handhelds offer flexibility

Using the devices, 40 participants filled in questionnaires about their moods and energy levels twice a day on a Qualcomm pdQ device. The results were wirelessly transmitted to researchers, who are sifting through the data to come up with ways to understand bipolar disorder.

Kreindler says part of the problem lies in determining what a “”normal”” mood is. “”Is it possible to effectively read mood and say this is a normal pattern and this is an abnormal pattern?””

He describes the project as a important step towards building a more quantifiable way of understanding moods. “”We were quite interested in how to collect a database of what mood looks like.””

The $350,000 project, which began in early 2000 with the survey period ending in the fall of 2003, had 20 people diagnosed with bipolar disorder and 20 “”healthy controls”” answer a series of questions every 12 hours. Participants were asked to record how much sleep they had the previous night, how energetic they felt and how euphoric or depressed they felt, by clicking a point on a continuum on the device’s screen.

Kreindler describes the format as a scaled-down visual analogue scale, reduced from 10 centimetres to four, due to the small screen size of the pdQ.

Handheld technology has advanced enough to offer greater flexibility and better analysis than those of previous studies, he says.

“”Paper and pencil methods have a whole bunch of limitations.””

With an overall completion rate of 85 per cent, Kreindler said he is pleased with the way the study played out. “”One of the nice things about doing a questionnaire on a handheld computer is you can tweak the questions as you go along.””

This means using more suitable language for questions based on the time of day participants responded. As well, by asking people to describe their moods at the moment, instead of having them recall their feelings at a later date, researchers were more likely to get an accurate picture of a participant’s frame of mind. The instant transmission of the results also meant they couldn’t be changed afterwards. Survey results were time and date-stamped as they were sent in, Kreindler explains.

Researchers are now studying the data to develop a better understanding of how moods may change. This could include finding clues that may indicate when depressive or manic episodes — traits associated with bipolar disorder — are about to occur. “”It will allow us to go back and look on this in a systematic way,”” Kreindler says.

The decision to use portable devices was based on broader research goals.

The study involved men and women from the ages of 18 to 65, not all of whom would be comfortable or familiar with information technology.

Little training required

“”We needed something that would not necessarily involve (knowing) how to use a computer,”” Kreindler says.

The questionnaire software, developed by an in-house contractor, mimics standard pen-and-paper surveys and is fairly intuitive, he says.

“”The amount of training we actually needed for this was about 30 seconds.””

Technical requirements included the easy-to-use graphic user interface, as well as the ability to work with Bell’s wireless network. (Bell also donated air time to the project.)

Through a process of elimination, researchers ended up working with Palm Canada and found suitable devices for the study. Kreindler says both Palm and Bell were quite helpful in making the project a success.

Investigators are looking to see if a “”mathematical fingerprint”” can be found in the data, but have also looked at some of the broader issues in using portable devices in this line of work.

“”It’s been absolutely fascinating,”” Kreindler says, describing what he calls the development of “”wireless psychiatric telemetry.””

Kreindler sees potential for more handheld-based research, including the possibility of therapeutic applications, not merely data collection.

By identifying their moods at particular points during the day, participants were required to be more aware of their emotions. Also, the project called for a good degree of commitment on the part of respondents, according to Kreindler.

“”It takes a certain sort of person who’s motivated to do this sort of thing.””

While Fenn still draws a line between portable and wearable computers — she considers truly wearable devices to be completely hands-free — it’s really just a matter of time before that line gets erased, she says.

“”The components are emerging.””

Hands-free headsets for cell phones and enhanced eye-wear are two likely paths to popularity for the technology, she says.

And while there may be some social or cultural adjustment ahead, as new-fangled contraptions combine with everyday life, Fenn says people will adjust.

She cites the case of hands-free cell phone use, in which users drew stares from bystanders who thought they were talking to themselves, she says.

“”Today, that doesn’t happen. There’s no embarrassment around it.””

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