Have Computer, Will Travel

Dec. 21, 2004
Converging technologies and lower costs are helping wearable computers emerge from the realm of academic curiosity.

As the technician peers through a small window-like device suspended over his right eye, he builds complex bundles of up to 100 different kinds and lengths of wires. These wire harnesses, some as long as 120 ft, will run throughout the Boeing planes he is helping to build. An outside observer might find it hard to determine how he knows where to put each length of wire, because on the technician's workspace he sees only a blank board with pegs. However, the technician, thanks to a head-mounted display, sees a schematic wiring diagram superimposed on his workspace. The system also tracks his head movements and presents a correct schematic where he is looking on the board. This "augmented-reality" application, where a virtual world is superimposed on the real world, is powered by a wearable computer. The system is activated by speech-recognition inputs and can be attached to a belt -- providing hands-free operating capability. Wearable computers are a natural progression in the evolution of computing power from mainframe to desktop to laptop to body-worn. They are receiving increased attention in applications where data input and acquisition need to be accomplished by a mobile worker. GartnerGroup Inc., a market-research and consulting firm in Stamford, Conn., rates wearable computers as one of its top 10 technologies to watch in 1999. And no less than computer giant IBM Corp. is scheduled to add its wearable computer offering to the mix of three other vendors come fourth quarter this year. "I think there is good opportunity for wearable computers on the factory floor, doing a job that must be done by hand but is too complicated to automate," says David Mizell, manager of virtual systems at Boeing Co.'s Phantom Works, Bellevue, Wash. While the Boeing pilot application in augmented-reality assembly is among the more sophisticated for body-worn computing power, wearables are also applicable in training, maintenance and repair, quality control, inspection, inventory, and warehousing. The key to wearable computers' potential is the ability to have near-desktop power in a compact form, combined with miniature displays that are easy to read, speech recognition input/application control, and wireless communication capabilities. For starters, maintenance, repair, and assembly manuals can be digitized and viewed on a small head-mounted display, including video and audio clips that couldn't be reproduced on the printed page. Thus, information is deployed just-in-time at the point of repair or assembly and searched by voice command, as the technician moves around his workspace. Siemens AG applies this application in the repair of large and complex mail-sorting equipment supplied to the post office, as has the military in a number of vehicle- and aircraft-repair scenarios. In factory-floor evaluations in the automotive industry, wearables support technicians performing real-time calibration of welding arms, roaming trouble shooters who need not return to a central station to pick up trouble tickets, and vehicle inspectors on an assembly line. For instance, in a pilot program at Navistar International Corp., inspectors of truck cabs vocally report defects into a wearable system as they roam around a cab prior to the final painting operation. Data on defects fed to a database in real time will help Navistar make line adjustments to correct process problems in a more timely fashion. "It will shorten the feedback loop," says Brian Green, quality engineer at Navistar's Springfield, Ohio, plant. "We'll know immediately what kind of issues we have and be able to deal with them right away." Interest in wearable computing has been heated up by a convergence of technologies, falling prices, and wireless networks, not the least of which include the Internet and company intranets. With their increased power, running on desktop operating systems such as Windows 95 and 98, the wearables appear as just another node on a network and are thus in full communication with it without the extra IT maintenance required for a different platform. A computer is wearable when the CPU and battery pack are small enough to be carried on a belt or in a pouch. "Just a year ago CPUs weighed some four lb and operated at 133 MHz," says Kevin Jackson, chief technical officer at Sentel Corp., a wearable-computer systems integrator in Alexandria, Va. About the size of a thick paperback book, "a wearable CPU weighs about two lb, and runs on Pentium systems up to 233 MHz." Computing power and memory (up to 128 MB RAM) of wearables closely parallels that of laptops, about a generation behind desktop power, because they need the low-power chips required for battery-power operation. Intel Corp., however, already has announced plans for a 300-MHz, low-power chip later this year, which should be adopted by wearable manufacturers as well. Increasing computing power above 156 MHz gives wearables the ability to run speech recognition for hands-free input and control of software applications. Battery packs for wearables weigh about 1 lb, as do the head-mounted displays, down from about 2 lb just a year ago, according to Jackson. All told the systems have almost doubled their power, cut their weight in half, and "the cost has decreased from about $8,000 to $10,000 to one that starts at about $5,000 and will go even lower with the new IBM system," says Jackson. While wearables can be equipped with a palm-sized display unit, what really sets the wearable technology apart is the head-mount display. "Today you can have the equivalent of what people have on their desktops: full color, in a tiny, lightweight display that sits in front of your eye, half an inch to an inch on the diagonal [screen measurement] plus some housing," says Paul Alt, senior manager of exploratory display technology at IBM's research division in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. "We didn't have that two years ago." The technology used by most wearable vendors suspends the display in front of one eye in a rig that fits on the head. "It feels quite natural," Alt says. "The fact that you look at it with one eye versus two is a small issue, especially if you are just paging through things and not reading for hours on end. What it looks like is what you would see if you were looking at a 17-in. display on your desk, and you went back about 2 ft." The IBM display has a resolution of 600-by-800 pixels, comparable to the resolution of a good desktop monitor. Another display manufacturer, MicroOptical Corp., Westwood, Mass., is building a mini-display screen into a pair of glasses, designed to make the head mount even less obtrusive. In the Boeing augmented-reality application, the image seen in the display is actually a reflection on a see-through screen. The eye mixes the reflection of the wiring schematic or any other desired image, such as a CAD drawing, with real life underneath the screen. "So what you see is the computer generated scene painted on the underlying real world," says Boeing's Mizell. In yet another application of wearable technology at Boeing, a small video camera is affixed to the head-mount display worn by technicians doing assembly of the prototype joint-strike aircraft being assembled in Palmdale, Calif. The technician can see manufacturing information on his display, and he is linked wirelessly to an Internet video and audio conferencing network that allows him to communicate with engineers in Seattle and St. Louis while showing them his workspace area. "The remote engineer can sort of look over the shoulder of the mechanic, using an Internet linkage to set up the meeting with the engineers in the remote sites and discuss the construction as it is taking place," Mizell says. At the university level, much of the investigation and development of wearable computing systems centers on human-capability augmentation. The concept is to merge the computer's awareness of a person's situation and surroundings with its ability to selectively deliver information of value in that situation. For example:

  • You may meet a person you've encountered before, but can't remember the person's name. The wearable of the future, with face-recognition capability (via video-camera technology), would recognize the face, prompt the person's name on a display screen, and bring up topics that were discussed at your last meeting.
  • While taking notes on a wearable in a classroom setting, the system would recognize the topic being written about and prompt questions to ask or present related information based on knowledge previously input into the device.
  • Linked to a Global Positioning Satellite system, the wearable could give users information about landmarks in that location.
  • Sign language could be converted to speech or text via a video camera that watches the movements of the hands and translates.
  • Sensors on the body could be monitoring vital signs or level of stress experienced, storing it in a database or signaling alerts.
In addition to all of this "remembrance-agent" functionality, the wearable could replace cell phone, beeper, and palm pilots, while adding functionality such as DVD movies you could watch in the same way you listen to music on a Walkman. Power for a wearable computer could be harvested from a piezoelectric system in the shoe that converts the mechanical energy of walking to electrical energy to drive the device. And for input devices other than speech, there is the Twiddler one-hand keyboard/mouse from Handykey Corp., Mt. Sinai, N.Y., which creates letters, numbers, and groupings (e.g. -ing, -tion) by pressing keys in combinations. University users report typing 60 words per minute with the device. "In the future everyone will have a wearable computer, and it will be customized with the peripherals and options and the functions that they want," says Thad Starner, a professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.
Wearable-computer manufacturers * Xybernaut Corp., Fairfax, Va., 703/631-6925, www.xybernaut.com * ViA Inc., Northfield, Minn., 507/663-1399, www.flexipc.com * Interactive Solutions, Sarasota, Fla., 941/753-5000, www.info-isi.com * IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., www.IBM.com/news/ls/1998/09/jp_3.phtml Wearable-computer systems integrators * Sentel Corp., Alexandria, Va., 703/739-0084, www.sentel.com * Information Control Corp., Columbus, Ohio, 614/523-3070 * Evergreen Computer Services Inc., Seattle, 206/340-1955, www.evergreencs.com Peripherals * MicroOptical Corp., Westwood, Mass., 781/326-8111, www.microopticalcorp.com, display in glasses * Handykey Corp., Mt. Sinai, N.Y., 516/474-4405, www.handykey.com, one-handed keyboard/mouse.

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