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Look out, Logan: Software is soft wear

CAMBRIDGE - Orange lights dance across the maroon silk blouse MIT professor Rosalind Picard dubs her "party shirt." The power source for this eye-popping fashion statement: a circuit board, wires, and a 9-volt battery, all concealed in an inside back pocket.

The blouse, also equipped with a microphone, is wearable computer research, part of a growing field that will draw more than 100 researchers from around the world to Boston this week for an annual conference. The researchers will show how their latest designs help people communicate and, in some cases, deal with serious medical issues.

But at this year's conference, they also will confront a side issue - whether to wear their designs at Logan International Airport.

The three-day conference opens Thursday at the Hyatt Harborside Hotel near the airport just weeks after Star Simpson, an MIT student, was arrested at the airport while sporting a glowing design made of a circuit board, wires, and a battery. Simpson, who has worked with Picard and other researchers in MIT's Media Laboratory, said her item was a piece of art - with lights that formed a star - that she made for a career fair. Authorities thought it resembled a bomb.

Picard is warning conference participants to refrain from wearing their creations at Logan. "A lot of us that have worked in this area for 10 years, we don't think twice about wearing electronics in public," said Picard, who last wore her light-up shirt at a circuits-and-systems conference in May. "It's very scary now to think about how what we wear could get us in trouble."

Conference participants include a researcher who creates LED bracelets and tank tops and another who uses an eye apparatus that doubles as a minicomputer.

Simpson's arrest and the upcoming conference highlight the emerging field of wearable computing, which began about a decade ago as researchers began devising ways to take people's computers off their desktops and embed them on their bodies. All of the designs, whether they are clothing or portable devices that attach to body parts, have computerlike functions. Think of the Bluetooth wireless device that communicates with your cellphone, researchers say.

At the 11th annual International Symposium on Wearable Computers, Picard will present her research on a wearable camera designed to help people with autism discern their own and others' emotions by monitoring their expressions. Three MIT doctoral students will discuss electronic badges that track an employee's movements, emotions, and cellphone chatter.

Thad Starner, a founding member of the conference while an MIT doctoral student and the chairman of this year's event, said he has worn his computer every day for 15 years. Part of it sits in a hip pack and part in an eyepiece that attaches to his glasses and extends in front of his eye.

When he reaches the security gate at airports, Starner said, he takes off his gear and gets ready to explain that his devices are a part of scientific research.

"The thing is, you [put on] the nerd show" for the security workers, said Starner, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

But given the incident with Simpson, he will speak with airport security before the conference about guidelines for participants.

Major Scott Pare, the State Police troop commander at Logan, said his main advice would be to use common sense with electronic devices.

"They can wear them, but wear them at the school. Wear them at their business. Wear them at their place of play," Pare said. "But when they're traveling at the airport, they have to think of their fellow passengers. Why put your fellow passengers into fear?"

Simpson, 19, who went to the airport to pick up a friend, was wearing the glowing design on her sweatshirt when she asked a question at the information booth. The woman at the booth called police, who surrounded Simpson outside the airport terminal.

From a distance, Pare said, Simpson's badge looked like it had components common to a suicide bomb.

Simpson was charged with possessing a hoax device. Thomas E. Dwyer Jr., Simpson's attorney, said he believes that authorities lack sufficient evidence to convict Simpson because they will have to prove that she intended to cause anxiety or unrest. Simpson, whose next court date is Oct. 29, did not intend to cause fear, he said.

Still, he echoed Pare's advice to the conventioneers not to wear their devices at the airport.

"Anyone traveling through an airport in America with innocent electronic devices runs the risk of an arrest, because concerns of terror will always outweigh art," Dwyer said.

Leah Buechley, a University of Colorado doctoral student who will bring her flashing bracelets and tank tops to the conference, said she has worn her items through airports in the past - but will not do so at Logan.

Her goal is to make unobtrusive electronic clothing, she said. She has created kits to teach youths how to design shirts that sense motion and communicate that to their cellphones.

Ironically, Simpson would have scored points with MIT's Media Lab on career day with her inventive name tag, Picard said.

"One of my routine interview questions is, 'Would you be willing to wear electronics?' " she said.

Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.

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