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Gerd Kortuem likes a catchy tune, but considers himself clueless when it comes to seeking out new music. However, instead of asking his friends what they are listening to, his iPAQ PocketPC does it for him.

Whenever Kortuem sits down with another participant in his ongoing experiments at the University of Oregon’s Wearable Computing Lab, his iPAQ establishes a Wi-Fi link with his colleague’s device. It checks the user’s identity, and if the person is someone whose taste Kortuem has noted as trustworthy, it downloads an MP3 playlist ranked according to frequency of plays. Later, Kortuem culls through the lists he has harvested. “I rediscovered David Bowie and the Talking Heads,” says the 38-year-old assistant professor, who recently moved to Lancaster University in England. “I knew I liked them, but I had forgotten all about them.”

The iPAQ doesn’t quite qualify as a wearable but it’s a step toward Kortuem’s vision. Wireless wearables, he says, can link like-minded strangers in a new kind of social organization he calls an “ad hoc community.”

As he sees it, the crowds who surround us every day constitute a huge waste of social capital. If you live in a city for instance, there are many who pass within a few yards of you each day who could give you a ride home, buy an item you’re trying to sell, or consider you as dating material. Dynamic networking makes it possible to tap those resources through a momentary alliance among transient interest groups, “like people working in a given neighborhood, staying overnight in a certain district, or taking the 10:15 flight to Chicago,” Kortuem explains.

In a world of wireless wearables, computers embedded in clothing could form networks on the fly, prompting software agents to carry out mutually beneficial transactions. A group waiting to buy movie tickets might use an ad hoc network to auction off favorable places in line. Thousands of people in Times Square could pool computing power and sell it by the teraflop-second to nearby office buildings.

Kortuem is part of a growing freemasonry of researchers looking beyond the individual personal-area network to the frontier of social computing. Research into wearables, which began in the 1970s, is hot at a handful of universities (MIT, Georgia Tech, and the University of Toronto) and commercial labs (Sony, Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Ericsson, and Nokia). As researchers cleared the early technical hurdles, networked groups of wearable users could exchange experiences and knowledge, share resources, collaborate, play games.

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