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September 08, 2007

Underwater computing?

Underwater computing? Now that's a novel concept. For the past 15 years I've been dealing with rugged computing equipment, machines that can be dropped, survive in dusty environments, continue to operate whether it's scorching hot or really cold. They can also handle rain, though these days the trend seems to be surviving an accidental coffee or soda spill onto the keyboard. Sort of like cupholders in cars have become a make-or-break feature, second only to how many DVD screens for entertainment they have.

Anyway, it's not unreasonable to expect computers come in contact with water. It covers 70% of the planet. People hang out around water. It rains. So we might expect a rugged handheld to continue to function if it is exposed to water. Why am I thinking of that? Well, maybe it's because I took up diving last year and since have been exposed to some pretty amazing equipment that does work underwater.

For example, divers depend on dive computers. That's because diving subjects the human body to much higher pressure than it is subjected to on the surface. To counteract that pressure, the air a scuba diver breathes is also much denser. At a depth of 33 feet, for example, the pressure is twice that on the surface, and the air that is released from the scuba tank via the regulator is also twice as dense. That means that the partial pressure of nitrogen is twice as high, and according to William Henry's law, more nitrogen dissolves into body tissues. Once the diver comes up and the pressure lessens, that nitrogen is released from the tissues again. Normally it just goes into the bloodstream and is safely breathed out through the lungs. However, if the diver ascends too quickly, or if s/he has absorbed a large amount of nitrogen during a long, deep dive, the released nitrogen can form bubbles, and that can have dire, and at times deadly, consequences. Divers used to compute safe dive times on dive tables, and that is still being taught in scuba classes, but almost everyone uses a dive computer these days. Dive computers are sophisticated devices that continually measure depth and compute absorbed nitrogen. They show numerous values on their displays, tell the diver how much longer s/he can stay at a given depth, and when it is time to go up.

Needless to say, dive computers must be totally and completely reliable. Failure is not an option. Leaking is not an option. Bugs are not an option. And wimpy battery life is not an option. And they must be able to handle not just a bit of splashing, not just a few minutes at three feet, but potentially hours at hundreds of feet. Without failing, ever. My dive computer has a wireless connection to my air tank so that it knows how much air I have left. After using the computer for a YEAR, the battery is still at 95%. Extreme "technical" diving may require very sophisticated dive computers to perform numerous life-supporting tasks at depths of many hundreds of feet. Sure, some look just like watches, and we're used to trust watches to survive swimming and snorkeling and a bit of diving. But many are larger -- sophisticated devices bigger than smartphones or PDAs, and with large displays and several controls.

But it's not just dive computers. It is also cameras. As a reviewer of rugged mobile computing equipment I have an appreciation for one of the standards by which we judge a machine's ability to protect itself from dust and water, the Ingress Protection, or IP, rating. A handheld rated at IP56 is one tough machine and can likely survive in just about any environment. If, in addition, it can survive four foot drops, well, that is a very rugged device, and it probably looks like one, too.

Diving exposed me to equipment that can do all that, and more. Case in point - a camera that Olympus makes. If you were to look at the Stylus 770 SW, you'd see a snazzy, handy little digital camera measuring 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.8 inches and weighing a bit over six ounces, battery included. It looks very elegant with a matte-silver finish. It has a bright 2.5-inch LCD display that's larger than those on most smartphones. The camera has about a dozen hardware controls, mostly pushbuttons, but also a navigation disk. There is a microphone and a speaker. What is special about it?

It is rated IP58. It can survive 5-foot drops. It is crushproof. It can operate at 14 degrees Fahrenheit. And it can be operated in 33 feet of water.

It does that without any protective case at all. No rubber bumpers, nothing. Just very intelligent design, meticulous manufacturing, and good sealing. It costs just over US$300.

As a diver, I took that camera down to not only 33 feet, but 67 feet, and later 77 feet. It stayed underwater for a good hour. No problem at all. At the maximum depth I reached, the water pressure was so great that some of the push buttons were pushed in. And a small black rectangle showed up in the center of the LCD, from the water pressure. But it continued to take pictures.

What those dive computers and cameras like the Olympus 770 SW show is that it is possible to create sophisticated electronic devices that can function underwater. I totally agree that there probably isn't a great need for handhelds you can take diving. Then again, some people out there might just like to have one. Most likely, we haven't even really started to think about possible applications.

I am pretty sure military divers would make good use of an underwater rugged computer. And commercial divers would, too. Even recreational divers might just love to take a handheld underwater, or perhaps a tablet so they can write on it or doodle or draw. Divers communicate via hand signals mostly, and those are often misunderstood. As an alternate they write on little slates. A computer or electronic slate would certainly be much better. As I write this I am supposed to follow up on a new underwater texting technology -- texting like SMS on cellphones. My guess is whatever device is used for that must be rugged and quite waterproof.

As is, we have a brand-new Trimble/TDS Nomad rugged handheld in our lab. It is a very tough handheld computer with an IP67 rating and thus was designed to survive immersion into water. We may put that to test test and record the performance on video. Simply don scuba gear and find a nice comfy spot somewhere at a depth of six or seven feet. Then see if it works. Without, of course, exceeding design specs. It's been pointed out that touch screens have not been designed to deal with water pressure and may thus fail to operate properly. At a depth of seven feet, the pressure on the touch screen would indeed be about 21% higher than on the surface, and this might make it inoperable, depending on design.

Is rugged underwater computing on the horizon? Is there a need for it? Personally I think there is. There are practical applications. And besides, it is always interesting to see if something can be done. Hey, Olympus did it, with a vengeance.

Posted by conradb212 at 11:12 PM | Comments (0)