Saturday, November 26, 2005

Robo-Climber

News from the Brave New World department: A guy named Anurag Sehgal at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy has written a thesis proposing "A Modular Wearable System of Mountaineering Devices." Sehgal imagines a chest harness that could holster a cell phone, sat phone, GPS unit, altimeter, walkie-talkie, digital camera, avalanche beacon, and PDA or laptop computer, all integrated so they are easy to use while, say, descending the Bottleneck on K2 in a whiteout.Fingers too frozen to call basecamp? No problem: Your glove acts as a joystick to control all the gizmos. Can't see the next wand in the whiteout? C'mon! You've got a heads-up display mounted on your goggles!

I don't know. I feel like I go to the mountains to escape all the electronic noise that bombards us. But even on the simplest days in the hills I already carry a digital camera, electronically controlled headlamp and altimeter watch, plus a digital avalanche beacon in winter. There have been a couple of times when I really wished I was carrying a cell phone on a climb or ski tour to call home and let my wife know I was OK but going to be late. I laugh a bit at the guys with their walkie-talkies in Eldorado Canyon, but when I'm screaming "off belay!" over a chinook wind I sometimes wish I had a walkie-talkie too. And I've been intrigued to learn that a GPS unit is now standard equipment on certain remote climbs, not just for techno-wankers but even for some of the world's best alpinists. As we add more and more electronics to the pack, the basic point Sehgal makes in his thesis abstract becomes increasingly valid: "Mountaineers currently carry a number of devices, which were never specifically developed for the context. The interfaces, software architecture, ergonomics, storage, wearability and power source on all the devices pose some form of problem to the users." So, who knows? Maybe Anurag Sehgal has seen the future of mountaineering. Just don't expect me to be an early adopter. I spent an hour and a half yesterday just trying to get a new cell phone to work.

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