For When You're on the Go, Wear Your Computer

The killer applications for wearable computers will be in linking shop floor workers in real time to enterprise resource planning, logistics, warehousing, and other supply chain applications. Here's a peak at why.


"Fully functioned, body-worn computers for hands-free, feet-free operation with speech activation, command, and control." No, that's not from some show on the SciFi channel. That's Jay Yass, vice president of Sales forXybernaut Corporation (Fairfax, VA), paraphrasing the definition of wearable computers from Dr. Steven Mann, formerly of the MIT Media Lab, now at the University of Toronto. Mann is the student a few years back who viewed the world—his entire world—through the computer and peripherals he wore on his back, around his waist, on his wrists, around his head.

Mann's work on wearable computers was quite revolutionary. Still is. But now, you too can outfit yourself with a wearable. You can even order it off the Internet.

What's a wearable?

An FAQ on the MIT Wearable Computing Web Page admits that its definition of a wearable computer is fuzzy. "It's a computer that is always with you, is comfortable, and easy to keep and use, and is as unobtrusive as clothing."

"Unobtrusive" may be pushing it. Even a water bottle attached to your belt during a day hike is noticeable after a while. And head-sets are not quite as comfortable as hats.

Be that as it may, MIT's FAQ also lists the following characteristics for wearable computers:

 Portable while operational. Wearables can be used while you move around.

 Hands-free use. Wearables interact with the user through speech recognition systems, voice output, heads-up display, keyboards, dials, and joysticks.

 Sensors. Wearables sense the world through wireless communications, global positioning systems, cameras, microphones, and other technologies.

 "Attention-getting." Wearables provide information to the user even when not actively being used. For example, it will announce when email has arrived, who it's from, and upon user request, display that email or read it aloud. In real time.

 Always on. Wearables are "always on and working, sensing, and acting."

This is all possible now because "miniaturization, conservation of power, thermal dissipation, speech recognition, and alternate input/output devices, including miniaturized displays, make up the key enabling technologies," says Yass, and wearables are at the confluence of those technologies.

Where's a wearable?

Xybernaut has three simple questions that at once explain how wearables are used and justified:

• Would your workers benefit from having instant access manuals, databases, schematics, troubleshooting information, computer and video training, and other information?

• Would they benefit from the ability to send and receive information, audio and video, and electronically complete checklists, forms, reports, work orders, and inventory reports?

• Would it help if they could get all this information hands free by inputting data via voice recognition commands directly from their location while they continue to work?

"We've put legs on the laptop, freed up your arms, and enabled everybody to be a complete member of the enterprise, just like any desk jockey," says Yass. At minimum, wearables enable live videoconferencing from anywhere to anywhere—shop floor to the design center, test track to engineering, design center to marketing, and vice versa—thereby continuing the trend to decentralize engineering, design, manufacturing, and marketing, continues Yass.

For example, one automotive OEM is piloting wearables in a quality control/design application. The engineers walk around the car, even competitors' cars, and voice their concerns, opinions, and evaluations about the craftsmanship, design, and features in what they see. A camera records the user's view. The wearable replaces the manual clipboard-and-pen approach of years ago, as well as the more recent approach of carrying a laptop computer, speaking into a microphone attached to that computer, and handling a camera. When the wearable is connected to a wireless network, the home office can watch and comment on what's going on at the same time.

But factories are not the only places wearing wearables. Last summer, DaimlerChrysler added Xybernaut Mobile Assistant (MA) IV to a "smart" urban car available in Europe. The wearable can be docked in the car as an integrated communications center and general purpose computer for two distinct users of the car. Drivers can get dynamic roadway directions, traffic and weather reports, commuting and entertainment information, and roadway assistance; passengers can access PC games, television, DVD movies, the Internet, email, and business applications. And both can remove and use the same wearable when walking around. (Think truly mobile office: sales people transmitting new-sales information to headquarters while driving to their next appointment.)

How much is a wearable?

A wearable is a real computer for users that do not want a compromise from their desktop, says Yass. "Real" computer means a full Wintel system (though it can run Unix and Linux). For about $5,000, you can wear a complete MA IV system that weighs in at about 5.5 lb. The system includes a CPU module, display (head-mounted VGA color monitor or wrist-mounted flat panel), an operating system from Microsoft, microphone and ViaVoice from IBM, belts, hot-swappable battery, and battery charger. Add a USB video camera to record what life passes by your eyes, strap a full-function QWERTY keyboard to your wrist (which must make two-handed touch typing tricky), include wireless connectivity, and you'll become a true extension of your desktop computer. All of this, about 16 lb., goes for under $10,000.

A competitive wearable from ViA, Inc. (Northfield, MN; comes with a 180-MHz processor, up to 64 MB DRAM, up to 3.2 GB hard drive, battery, and pen tablet display for about $2,600; with the voice package, it costs $3,257. ViA calls its device a wearable PC because "it comes with a belt and is light enough not to pull down your pants."

Next on tap: The fashion side of wearable computers still needs some work.