Dick Tracy has nothing on the students at The Celebration School near Orlando, Fla. The school has issued its students tiny, wearable personal computers that initially are being used to open locked doors throughout the school.

But there will be many future applications for the decoder-ring-like device developed by Dallas Semiconductor Corp. and based on Sun Microsystems’ Java technology, school officials said.

Called iButton, the machine packs a Java computer chip inside a small, but durable, stainless-steel case. The tiny computers are designed to be worn as a ring, watch, dog tag, or key ring and can be used for more than just access to physical locations. The “very” personal computers also can be programmed to control access to personal files or resources, such as the internet, to track attendance as students enter a classroom, and to use an electronic accounting, or eCash, system in the school cafeteria.

“Of course, students use computers, but they haven’t been able to wear them until now,” said Michael Bolan, vice president of product development at Dallas Semiconductor.

The iButton comes with several safeguards to withstand demanding student use. Its resemblance to a valued fashion accessory reduces the chances it will be lost. The device’s stainless-steel casing protects the iButton from daily wear and tear.

The iButton is personalized and further secured with a personal identification number (PIN). It can be programmed to be inoperable if the valid PIN is not entered each day, for example.

At The Celebration School, 100 students and teachers are beta-testing the iButton. The school, which keeps its doors locked for security purposes, wanted a way to give its students access to the rooms they are supposed to be in, without disrupting their classmates.

The electronic door locks were designed by Schlage with a network integration developed by Lares Technology. The locks have a “Blue Dot Receptor” button that opens the door when a valid iButton is pressed to it. That same type of receptor button could also be used to control access to computers and the internet, among other things.

The Blue Dot Receptor accessory, the pipeline to the computer system, could also come in handy for home use. For example, a student unable to make it to school could still complete assignments at home, digitally sign them to assure teachers they did the work, and eMail them to school.

A Sun authentication server controls all access privileges and has been integrated into a kiosk system, designed by Science Applications International Corp. The system works on desktop, laptop, or handheld PCs, as well as with handheld reader/writer devices.

“The coolest things since Madonna”

The Celebration School showcased the iButton system during the Florida Educational Technology Conference, held in Orlando in mid-March. The school invited parents, residents, and conference attendees to the event.

“The kids think these are the coolest things since Madonna,” said Scott Muri, the school’s instructional technology specialist.

One of the best things about the machines, he said, is that they are “making technology part of the everyday environment.”

And at The Celebration School, the students will play a large role in developing future applications for the system. “The possibilities are endless,” Muri said.

One application the students are working on would allow them access to personal files from the school’s network, an intranet, or their computer at home.

The school has an open internet policy, so it won’t be using the iButton to grant conditional access there. But it is looking at an eCash solution for its cafeteria. Muri envisions the iButtons one day replacing the school’s bar-code identification system. The school does plan to personalize its machines with PIN numbers, but only while it works to develop a more advanced biometrics identification system using fingerprints.

The Celebration School is a K-12 public school owned by the Osceola County School District. It has an enrollment of 925 students. The school was built through a collaboration among the district, the Walt Disney Co., and Stetson University.

Students are taught in multi-age groups that focus on personalized learning plans and portfolios. The school facility supports interactive learning and provides innovative technology linkages for communication throughout the community and world.

The Celebration School has formed partnerships with some 17 technology companies to make the facility a model for high-tech schools. Muri said school officials will evaluate the iButton system this summer before providing the devices to the entire student body and staff.

Celebration School

http://www.ctan.com/celebration

Dallas Semiconductor Corp.

http://www.dalsemi.com, www.iButton.com

Lares Technology

http://www.lares.com

Schlage Lock Corp.

http://www.schlage.com/products/epkey.htm

Science Applications International Corp.

http://www.saic.com

Sun Microsystems

http://www.sun.com/software/cover