Wearable Computing: More Than Geek Chic

Although widely considered geek chic, wearable computing systems are steadily gaining ground in vertical and consumer arenas alike.

Although widely considered geek chic, wearable computing systems are steadily gaining ground in vertical and consumer arenas alike.

At the center of the movement is wearable computing pioneer Xybernaut Corp., which, at its annual wearable computing conference in McLean, Va., at the end of the month will announce its latest product, the Mobile Assistant V.

The lightweight computer, which will include built-in DSPs (digital-signal processors) from Texas Instruments Inc., will sport more processing power, a longer-lasting battery and lighter headgear.

The Mobile Assistant V bests its predecessors by including the on-board DSP, an enhanced flip-out flat-panel display and a lithium-ion battery integrated into the computer. Previous versions required a separate battery pack that users had to strap on.

The head mounts available for Mobile Assistant V will weigh only a few ounces rather than a pound. The unit will also feature enhanced speech recognition, a function vital to hands-free computing.

The Fairfax, Va., company also plans to release a developers tool kit for the DSP this summer, when the computer is due to ship in volume.

IBM will manufacture the system and has tentative plans to co-market the product as well.

Current customers include many companies that have large field forces, such as FedEx Corp., Bell Canada, and the U.S. Army and Navy, to name a few.

Bell Canada, for one, has been testing the Mobile Assistant IV in various iterations, including some with flat-panel displays and some with head mounts. The company said it expects a widespread deployment later this year.

"With wearable technology, it doesnt matter if theyre down in a manhole or up in a loft," said Brad Chitty, general manager of mobile communications services at Bell Canada, in North York, Ontario. "They always have access to customer information as opposed to having to go back to the office or the truck."

Chitty acknowledged there are applications better suited for handheld PCs that enable remote access to corporate applications as well. But he said that his company required more than a personal digital assistant can handle.

"We run proprietary software that isnt available for those small, thin clients," he said. "We need a full, robust system."

Xybernaut plans to extend its market focus in the coming months with a wearable machine that runs Windows CE.

"Youll have to package that with a cellular service, an ISP [Internet service provider] service, a trading service [and so on]," said Edward Newman, president and CEO of Xybernaut.

IBM was more cautious.

"The efforts of the wearable industry are going to be focused on the early adopters for a while," said George Tatomyr, principal executive for wearable solutions at IBMs Purpose Optimized Network Solutions Group, in Rochester, Minn. "The geek factor is an issue. In North America, especially, it will take longer to figure out what people would and wouldnt wear."

Tatomyr added, though, that IBM still plans to release a low-end, Linux-based, Dick Tracy-like computer wristwatch at some point in the next couple of years. The watch will be on display at the Xybernaut conference, he said.