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The Future Shock of Wireless Wearables

The Future Shock of Wireless Wearables

Today, computers go everywhere with us. We port laptops, handhelds, and BlackBerry devices for every purpose from remote teleworking to anytime, anywhere e-mailing. As long as the device does its job, we don't gripe. The question is no longer whether we'll be taking computers everywhere; it's whether the ones we take will be smaller and more comfortable, convenient, attractive, and even seamlessly wearable.

Imagine that your job requires you to keep your hands and eyes free. You have no access to a computer, whether you're a utility worker or a package handler. Now imagine doubling your efficiency by having access to a full-blown, hands-free PC that sits almost weightlessly on your person?

Suppose you find yourself in a career that is getting more technical all the time. Stopping to read a tech manual is going to slow you down. What if wearable computers made it possible for you to work steadily while providing all the specs you need?

Wearable computers are already providing the means to do these things. There have been major improvements over the more or less wearable computers we are already buying in droves ­ PDAs, handhelds, and mini-notebooks.

Did you know that industrial wearables are already more compact than handhelds? They're more comfortable too. They have massive processing capabilities and come complete with full-size viewable displays that take up just a speck on the corner of a pair of eyeglasses. Mice and keyboards can now be replaced with voice recognition and other input modes.

Instead of stopping off at Starbucks, the local library, or the Internet café, you can connect wherever you are, and take care of business and personal functions. In addition, medical science is gearing up to take your temperature, measure your heart rate, and acquire other bodily input without you having to stop by the doctor's office or check in at the hospital. These are just a few reasons why wearables have a bright forecast.

Who Are the Titans of Wireless Wearables?
Xybernaut is a leader in wearable and related technologies. They're ready for anything including any popular operating system. According to Ed Newman, CEO of Xybernaut, "We run all the standards: Windows, Unix, Linux, anything that runs on your laptop or desktop runs cold on our product, which means you take advantage of all the software that's out there."

Years of developing software that's compatible with these operating systems isn't lost; they all work on Xybernaut's MA V wearable computer. Xybernaut supports any networking capability that is available to the customer, whether wireless or hard-line wired connectivity.

Newman says, "It's our vision that in the future everybody is going to be carrying, wearing, using some type of wearable device. We think it's going to be covered by one or more of our 700 patents. We started this baby in the late 1980s and I made sure we acquired globalized patent coverage, which we have. This is why we've attracted Hitachi and IBM as licensees for consumer and business products, respectively. It's going to be difficult to come up with a competitive product that gets around us. You can come up with a product but it won't be competitive."

The MA V is primarily an IBM build that came out in 2001. The MA V has a Celeron 500MHz processor and 256MB of RAM. You've got a 10GB internal hard drive and you can add an additional 40GB external. Additional items include a compact flash, PCMCIA, hot-swapped batteries, firewire, Bluetooth-headmounted SVGA displays that weigh only a few ounces but offer desktop quality images as well as a standard flat-panel display that is touch-screen enabled ­ and the MA V is all speech driven.

Xybernaut's not alone. With a variety of touch-screen displays, the ViA II PC customers love the form and fit. It has a powerful CPU, built on the Transmeta Caruso Processor chip (a 166MHz or 667MHz processor soon bumping up to 800MHz and even on up to 1GB by about January 2003). The device has 128MB RAM (soon to be 256MB as the form factor is now small enough to suit it), and you can have a 6­20GB hard drive. You also get two PCMCIA slots, serial, USB, a PS2 port, and hot swappable batteries.

According to Ed McConaghay, CEO of ViA, the ViA II PC straps lightly on the body and yet uses all the current programs that are used on a Windows desktop machine. With wireless features, long-life batteries that can be hot swapped, and your choice of either touch display, speech recognition, or headmounted display, this is a highly attractive alternative to your laptop or PDA, or for those jobs where no computer was possible before.

Wearable computer makers have carefully researched and strongly considered the environments they are selling to. ViA, for example, offers a choice of a backlit indoor display or a highly reflective outdoor display for easy reading. New choices will include an indoor color SVGA and an indoor/outdoor color SVGA display.

Between ViA and Xybernaut you have a choice and the benefits of competition (e.g, quality assurance, competitive price). McConaghay says, "We think that the market opportunity for wearable computing is already several billion dollars, and that the market size will double over the next three years or so." ViA and Xybernaut have some competition until they achieve market saturation ­ competition from offerings like heavy-duty handhelds, laptops, and tablets. Wearable computers, however, have more raw power and are much more convenient than these devices.

Close behind Xybernaut and ViA is SPOT. Carnegie Mellon's SPOT (preproduction) is about the size of two decks of cards and weighs about 9 oz. It has a 200MHz StrongARM Processor with about 256MB memory; that's purposely enough memory so you can do both speech recognition and language translation in the memory (it saves time). You also get 802.11 wireless and an IBM headmounted display.

How Does SPOT Fare in Field Tests?
According to Dan Siewiorek, director of the Human Computer Interaction Institute at CMU, Carnegie Mellon did field testing with a consumer group more demanding than most of us ­ the U.S. Marines. They did what they call a 600-element inspection; they normally do it with clipboards. Using a predecessor to SPOT saved the Marines 40% of the time it takes to do the actual inspection (which is usually a six-hour inspection) and another 30% on the time that normally would have been spent by a clerical worker typing the data into a computer. The Marines experienced a 70% total time savings. In most field tests the device also cut paperwork in half.

Carnegie Mellon has also developed a software system for SPOT called IETM (Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals). People at Navy sites can use IETM to get access to all the tech manuals they need. They can also collaborate with remote colleagues to solve problems as if they were right there next to them. The data and interface are what you'd expect to see in maintenance manuals. You can page through them without turning literal pages and you can pull up video clips; basically it's a multimedia document.

What you see on the screen is absolutely everything you need to do. With standard manuals you have to have your fingers in about 12 different places as you reference back and forth to try to figure out how to solve the problem. Carnegie Mellon has a patented dial that allows you to connect links in a page in a circular list; as you rotate it, it makes various selections.You just push the dial in and it clicks the selected link to access it. It's a dream come true for people who wear gloves or who must wear the SPOT hardware device at different locations on the body.

Carnegie Mellon isn't even close to stopping there. They are working on a natural language interface so aircraft maintenance technicians (or any other technician the IETMs are tailored to) can hear the manual reading itself to them. This feature enables eye- and hands-free labor. You will also be able to ask it to reread something you missed.

'Calling Dr. Wearable!'
The medical field is a huge consumer of technology advances. A product from a small company called BodyMedia is one of the first wearable computer entrants into the world of medicine. According to Astro Teller, the CEO, "BodyMedia is in the business of tools for continuous body monitoring."

The very tiny, body-worn devices from BodyMedia successfully collect, store, analyze, and represent robust, continuous, physiological input about the wearer. Though BodyMedia isn't in the wearable computer business per se, they are in the continuous physiological information retrieval business. This necessitates using wearable computers; there is simply no other way to do it.

BodyMedia products are helping to chart people's vital signs around the clock eliminating the need to confine patients to a hospital. Applications include weight and sleep management, rehabilitation, and drug research. In the long run, Teller and BodyMedia plan to foster the ability to look into the mental and physical states of patients in real time. Wearable computers will specialize in geriatric care, pediatric care, industrial safety, sports medicine, athletics, major entertainment events, and general fitness and wellness programs.

Xybernaut also has a consumer product as of first quarter of this year. It's called the poma(TM). It's a Windows CE device manufactured under license by Hitachi (the first computer to market with a headmount display as the standard display mode). The headmount display is worn like a pair of glasses; it's viewable as a monitor image in one eye. The monitor moves up out of the way when needed. Specs include a 128MHz processor, 32MB RAM, Compact Flash, USB and headphone jack, and that's not a third of it! It's only 10 oz, fits in your shirt pocket, and is 20x as powerful as your Palm VI.

Wearable Computers for the Consumer Market, Made By...Who?
According to Stephen Jacobs, assistant professor of IT at RIT, "At the moment it's a little too early to tell." Jacobs believes that companies like Xybernaut and ViA are too small to have sufficient market penetration. He believes corporations like Panasonic and Sony have the sense of style and functionality and the marketing muscle needed to move commercial, wireless wearable computers forward. Xybernaut's aforementioned approach to licensing, however, prepares them to stay in the game regardless.

Are wireless wearable computers going to be an everyday item in our near future? Yes. Either because this generation accepts them, or because the next one expects them.

More Stories By David Geer

David Geer is a contributing writer to WBT, a journalist, and a computer technician. He graduated from Lake Erie College in 1993 with a BA in psychology and has worked in the computer industry and in the media since 1998.

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