WEARABLE COMPUTERS: AN OVERVIEW
Tara Kieffner
 
INTRODUCTION

Computer technology has played an important role in businesses throughout the years. There has been active development of increasingly portable computer hardware. The development originated with desktop and laptop units and is becoming increasingly apparent in palmtop, handheld and now wearable computers.

Sometimes the location of a desktop or laptop computer is inconvenient or inefficient. When accurate information is not available in a timely manner, production decreases. This is a problem for many businesses throughout the world. With rising costs and demand for increased efficiency, wearable computers give personnel real-time access to critical information (Anonymous, S21).

The wearable computer provides the ultimate in network access-- hands-free, heads-up operation with complete mobility and ample computing power. Now personnel can connect to enterprise information systems without interrupting their work. With the convenience of voice activation and head-mounted or touchscreen display options, they can meet their ever-broadening responsibilities, supported by immediate access to on-line manuals, catalogs, parts lists, drawings, supplier information, work forms and more (Xybernaut).

Whether on-site, in transit or at home, wearables could enable users to maintain communication with company computers through direct connection or Internet. The device brings forth a whole new concept in mobile computing, offering the ultimate in PC portability. Much like conventional hand held and palmtop computers, wearables can upload and download data and software from various systems to desktop PCs.

The next stage in computer miniaturization and productivity has arrived. With wearable computers, workers on the front lines of industrial facilities or in the midst of non-stop tasks can have the full functionality and connectivity of workers sitting at a desktop PC. But not all wearable computers are equal. Not all deliver the features and performance capabilities needed to bring computer productivity to the field. The purpose of this paper is to discuss many aspects of wearable computers and their impact in the conduction of business.

 

LITERATURE REVIEW

Definition

Wearable computers are becoming a popular solution to the information inefficiency problem. There are many opinions of the definition of a wearable computer. "A computer is wearable when the CPU and battery pack are small enough to be carried on a belt or in a pouch" (Stevens, 2). The MIT web page defines a wearable computer as, " . . . a computer that is always with you, is comfortable and easy to keep and use, and is as unobtrusive as clothing." However, MIT gives a more specific definition of wearable computers. The following characteristics were taken directly from their web site (MIT, 1):

 

History

Many events have shaped the evolution of the wearable computer. Various innovations and experiments have helped pave the way for wearable computers. The following is a detailed timeline of these events (Rhodes,1):

Wearable Generalities and Competing Technologies

The wearable PC is definitely making a statement in the fashion industry. Xybernaut's Mobile Assistant IV was part of the Stephen Sprouse Fall Winter 1999/2000 collection (Automatic I.D. News). Within the article, Stephen Sprouse commented, "I had no idea that the computer industry has advanced to the point that people can be wearing computers." Sprouse believes the wearable computer made the audience think beyond clothes to the new millennium and added an element of excitement to the show.

Wearables closely parallel the computing power and memory of a laptop with up to 128 MB of RAM. The systems have almost doubled their power and cut their weight in half. Battery packs for wearables weigh about a pound, down from two pounds a year ago (Stevens, 2).

The head-mount display sets the wearable technology apart from the competition equipped with a palm-sized display unit. The technology used by most wearable vendors suspends the display in front of one eye in a set that fits on the head. "It feels quite natural. 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 inch display on your desk, and you went back about 2 feet" (Stevens, 3).

As with all industries, there is competition within the wearable computer industry. Xybernaut Corporation and ViA, Inc. are the biggest competitors. More detailed specifications will be provided and analyzed in the latter part of this paper.

 Current Usage of Wearable Computers

Since one of the defining features of wearable computers is their portability, wearables can be used anywhere a person can work comfortably. Various companies are experimenting and currently using these tools for production efficiency.

Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc. or GSSI, is a leading manufacturer in the utility and construction industries. The wearable computer is a new solution for the company by making location and management of underground assets more productive, more cost-effective and safer. The operator wears the computer while pushing the radar equipment over the surfaces to be scanned, and has the system controls and scan results available at all times (Xybernaut). The mobility of the wearable computer enables the operator to gather data more efficiently and reduces the amount of rework. This efficiency leads to reduced costs, improved safety at the site, and quality information.

Schneider Excavating survey crews use the ViA II Wearable PCs to complete their work. Crews have drastically improved the process of surveying. Fred Hartzheim, a civil engineer for Schneider Excavating stated, "We're 150% more efficient than we were with laptops. We can double our work output, even when we cut our crew size from two to one" (Murray, 1). The computer does not use a mouse or keyboard. Instead, the computer is voice activated. The wearable computer offers a simple way to have the capability of computer access, while on the move.

Various Cadillac dealerships are beginning to use voice-controlled, wearable computers. Service technicians are able to access complex databases of manuals available for the servicing of the vehicles. John F. Smith, Cadillac's general manager, states, "The days of a technician pulling up his toolbox to the car and using only the knowledge inside his head to accomplish his task are over. There's too much to memorize and the level of expertise required exceeds traditional training" (Teltronics). The result of this advancement is more reliable and faster repairs at a lower cost, an advantage to the dealership and their customers.

Framatome Technologies, Inc. (FTI) is a company that inspects steam generators in nuclear power plants. FTI was able to improve its inspection inventory process by implementing the usage of wearable computers. When an inspection is performed, the workers need to identify the whereabouts of the equipment and the equipment that has been used in the containment area, which is considered to be radioactive. Glenn Gumpman, FTI Systems Engineer oversees the inventory process. He says, "With tens of millions of dollars of inventory in inspection and maintenance equipment, much of it is custom-made. We need to know where things are and what's available in what status" (Xybernaut). The application of the wearable computer thereby improves critical inventory information and control of the assets.

Insurance adjusters are able to print an estimate as soon as the damaged property is inspected. This is possible through the use of a wearable computer. Paperwork, time, and cost are reduced from this mobile solution (ViA).

Professionals in the medical field can also benefit through the use of the wearable computer. " . . . doctors and paramedics (can) collect, reference and communicate critical patient information wirelessly while administering care" (ViA).

Food service can be improved through the use of this new technology. After the order is taken, it can be transmitted immediately to the employees behind the counter. The process is much faster, thus increases customer satisfaction (ViA).

It is apparent that there are currently numerous uses of wearable computers. Usage will increase in years to come. As these production tools become more popular, additional companies will utilize the systems for increased efficiency and production.

 METHODOLOGY

Wearable computers are involved in a growing trend within all industries of business. I conducted research on the evolution of wearable computers, uses for the machines, and the specifications of wearable computer competitors. I gained knowledge through Internet web sites, periodicals, and electronic communication with one of the largest manufacturers of wearable computers.

Internet web sites

I used various search engines to access information. I searched Yahoo! and found 16 site matches. GoTo.com presented over 120 web sites that included a connection to wearables. Over 3,000 matches were found through AltaVista. As with all inquiries, some web sites were not relevant to my topic.

Periodicals

Information from newspapers and magazines were available through the ProQuest Direct database. When "wearable computers" was entered into the search area, 90 articles evolved. A majority of these articles could not be used due to some antiquated information.

Electronic Communication

During my initial research topic efforts, I found an article in Popular Mechanics magazine. This particular article was what primarily sparked my interest in wearable computers. At the end of the article, it gave a web address for the Xybernaut Corporation. I located the web page on the Internet. After some deliberation, I decided to e-mail the company for additional information. I immediately received a response from Xybernaut indicating that I would receive a package of information through the mail. The package included detailed specifications of the wearable computers as well as case studies and news articles.

Through my research efforts, I was able to gain an abundance of valuable information for analysis.

FINDINGS

The most fundamental issue in wearable computing is personal empowerment through its ability to equip the individual with a customizable information depot that is owned, operated and controlled by the wearer.

According to Steve Mann, there are three operational modes of wearable computing: constancy, augmentation and mediation. Constancy is the idea that wearable computers are ready to interact with the user at any time, whereas the desktop computer must first be turned on before it can be used. The second mode is augmentation. Mann states, "Traditional computing paradigms are based on the notion that computing is the primary task. Wearable computing, however, is based on the idea that computing is NOT the primary task. The assumption of wearable computing is that the user will be doing something else at the same time as doing the computing" (Mann, 2). The figure on the following page illustrates this signal flow between the human and the computer.

FIGURE 1.

Augmentation Signal Flow






Source: Steve Mann

Mediation is the third operational mode. According to Mann, the wearable computer can encapsulate us (Mann, 2). "Mediation allows us to block or modify information leaving our encapsulated space. In the same way ordinary clothing prevents others from seeing our naked bodies, the wearable computer may, for example, serve as an intermediary for interacting with untrusted systems" (Mann, 2).

Mann has identified six attributes of wearable computing. These attributes include unomonopolizing, unrestrictive, observable, controllable, attentive and communicative. They are illustrated in the figure on the next page:

 

Figure 2.

The Six Attributes of Wearable Computing









Source: Steve Mann

The first attribute is the idea that the wearable computer is unmonopolizing of the userís attention. The user can do other tasks while operating the computer. It is assumed that the computer will be used as a secondary activity rather than a primary focus (Mann, 3).

The wearable computer is also unrestrictive to the user. It is extremely mobile and can be used while other responsibilities are being completed.

The wearable computer is observable by the user. The operator can see the screen through the eyepiece at all times, unless the user blinks or momentarily looks away. However, the computer is constantly perceptible by the user.

Wearable computers are controllable. The user is in control the computer at any time. Steve Mann says, "You can grab control of it at any time you wish. Even in automated processes you can manually override to break open the control loop and become part of the loop at any time you want to" (Mann, 3).

The wearable computer is attentive to the environment and communicative to others. As a result of these attributes, the operator has increased awareness about what is happening around them. The user can utilize the wearable computer as a communications medium, which may also increase efficiency and productivity.

Input Devices There are many different input devices that already exist for wearable computers. No single input device is perfect for the needs of everyone. Wearable computers must be customized to the user in order to experience the full productivity of the machine. The most common input devices include speech and keyboards.

Speech recognition systems can sometimes be limiting during a conversation or whenever privacy is required (Wearcam, 1). These systems depend on noise-canceling microphones that are worn close to the mouth. Since noise could interfere with the integrity of the data, these systems could not be used as running transcription machines (Wearcam, 1).

A majority of the wearable computers include keyboards as the input devices. Since most computer users are familiar with using a keyboard, it seems as if keyboards would be the most widely accepted input devices. However, the Wearcam Homepage states, "So far, keyboards on notebook and pocket computers are either too large for convenience or too small to use. Manufacturers are afraid that it would take users too long to learn a new way of typing" (Wearcam, 2).

Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV

The Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV (MA IV) is one of the most common brand-name wearable computers on the market. It is a lightweight computer with all the functionality and connectivity of a desktop computer. "(The MA IV) is available in a touch screen flat panel color display, head mounted color display with hands-free voice recognition and activation" (Xybernaut). According to Shawn Barnett of Pen Computing Magazine, " . . . the system consists of a few major components: the main CPU; the headset with video camera, boom mike speaker and monitor; the battery pack; and an optional keyboard" (Barnett, 45).

Xybernaut Corporation describes their wearable technology in the following quote: "The Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV series of wearable computers, with its belt-worn configuration and high-speed Intel Pentium processor, provides speech activation for todayís class of mobile workers" (Sentel).

Table 1.

Requirement Comparisons
 
Requirements
Xybernaut MA IV
Hardcopy Documents
Networked Desktop Computers
Laptops with Wireless LAN
Real-time information access
X
X
   
Real-time data input
X
   
X
Plug-in diagnostics support
X
 
X
X
Local storage
X
 
X
X
Real-time remote collaboration
X
   
X
Long-term remote operation
X
X
 
X
Source: Xybernaut

The information in the table above clearly indicates that a wearable computer is a great solution since it fulfills all the given requirements. The wearable computer provides real-time information access. The head-mounted system can display the needed information. Hardcopy documents also provide this advantage, but are very inconvenient and may have version control challenges (Xybernaut).

As businesses become more integrated with other information systems, accurate and timely data becomes critical. Real-time data input is available by using wearable computers and laptops. The Xybernaut operates with voice recognition or a wrist-mounted keyboard. This provides complete mobility and an opportunity to experience real-time data input. However, laptops are not flexible enough to be used in various environments and are very limited in this area.

Plug-in diagnostics support is also very important. Businesses are relying on plug-in diagnostics for troubleshooting and maintenance of equipment (Xybernaut). These diagnostics are made available by wearable computers, networked desktop computers and laptops with wireless LANs. The Xybernaut wearable computer has a USB port for this purpose. Networked desktop computers can provide support if they are close by and laptops require a flat surface.

Data storage is critical to information access. The computers must be able to run application software and download documents that are critical to the business process. The Xybernaut MA IV, networked desktop computers and laptops meet this requirement.

Remote collaboration can be advantageous to the company. If there is a problem in the manufacturing plant, the employee can contact other personnel. Consultation with a remote expert can speed troubleshooting and decrease the on-site service fees. The head-mounted display, cell phone and video camera of the wearable computer offer real-time collaboration. However, laptops can be very limited in providing this requirement.

To support remote activities, computers must provide several hours of battery operation. Rechargeable batteries of the Xybernaut MA IV provide up to six hours of operation. Hard copy documents do not have the problem of limited battery power. However, laptops can provide an inadequate amount of power.

Xybernaut Pricing and Specifications Pricing and specifications usually determine which product a consumer will purchase. The wearable computer market is no exception. Below are the lists of Xybernautís technical specifications:

Table 2.

Xybernaut Technical Specifications
 
CPU MODULE  
Weight Approximately 1.9 lbs.
Processor 200 or 233 MHz Intel Pentium MMX
Memory 32, 64, 96, or 128 MB SDRAM
Storage 2.1 GB or 4.3 GB internal removable HDD
Shock mounted hard drive  
Magnesium alloy case  
Mouse Built-in
PC card readers Built-in
Sound card Built-in, full duplex
Operating System Windows 95, 98, NT, and others
 
FLAT PANEL DISPLAY  
Weight Approximately 1.3 lbs.
Display 640 x 480 color VGA
Built in programmable buttons  
Pen or touch screen  
 

 

 
 
BATTERY
Weight: Approximately 1 lb.
Lithium-ion
Rechargeable hundreds of times
Combined AC power adapter/battery charger with protective circuitry
Source: Xybernaut

There are many different configurations of the wearable computer, which causes a price variance. The following pricing configurations for the Mobile Assistant IV were obtained from the Xybernaut Corporation website:

Table 3.

Mobile Assistant IV Head Mounted Display Packages
 
  CPU Speed RAM Hard Drive Cost
MA IV Basic Pentium MMX 200 MHz 32 MB 2.1 GB $5,489.00
MA IV Basic Plus Pentium MMX 233 MHz 64 MB 2.1 GB $6,309.00
MA IV Deluxe Pentium MMX 233 MHz 128 MB 4.3 GB $6,971.00
Source: Xybernaut

The head mounted display costs an additional $1,995.00. A flat panel display is also offered and can be purchased for $1,525.00 (Xybernaut).

The figure above illustrates how the cost increases with additional speed, memory, and hard drive space. There are numerous other options consumers can choose to configure their wearable computer to accommodate their needs.

 

 

ViA II

ViAís wearable computer is slightly different from Xybernautís. According to Sentelís homepage, "The ViA II is the worldís smallest flexible, wearable PC, weighing only 22 oz. The ViA II is a full-function PC in a wearable form factor that includes battery, display and other peripheral devices. ViA II provides independent or simultaneous display or voice interfaces" (Sentel).

ViA Pricing and Specifications The wearable computer manufactured by ViA is not as fast as Xybernaut. Also, the data storage capacity is not as large. The basic technical specifications of ViA are provided in the tables below:

Table 4.

ViA II Technical Specifications
 
CPU MODULE  
Weight Approximately 22 oz.
Processor 180 MHz Cyrix MediaGX (or greater)
Memory 32 or 64 MB DRAM
Storage 1.6 or 3.2 GB IBM disk drive
Operating System Windows 98
 
INDOOR READABLE DISPLAY  
Weight 14 oz.
Display 640 x 480 color VGA
Built in mouse buttons  
Pen or touch screen  
 

 
 
BATTERY
Weight: Approximately 16 oz.
Lithium-ion
Rechargeable
Source: ViA

The configuration prices of ViA are set up differently from that of Xybernaut. Many of the components that are standard in the Xybernaut system are optional in the ViA wearable computer. The configuration prices are as follows:

Table 5.

ViA, Inc. Configuration Prices
 
  CPU Speed RAM Hard Drive Cost
Package A Cyrix 180 MHz 32 MB 1.6 GB $4,687.00
Package B Cyrix 180 MHz 64 MB 3.2 GB $4,997.00
Package C Cyrix 180 MHz 64 MB 1.6 GB $3,257.00
Source: ViA, Inc.

Although the ViA wearable computer looks like it is cheaper than Xybernautís model, the options in the table below show the cost of ViAís options. These components are standard for Xybernaut and are included in their configuration price.

Table 6.

Additional Components
 
Component Price
Indoor Readable Display $1,257.00
Serial Mouse $22.00
The model produced by ViA is designed a little differently than the Xybernaut. They both share the same general concept. Both systems will help a business become more productive, if used correctly. Wearable Computer Reviews There are many comments and opinions related to the use or performance of wearable computers. Alexei Oreskovic of PC Computing magazine wore a Xybernaut MA IV for one day. Oreskovic reported, "The first thing we noticed was how annoying it is to squint at the headsetís 1.1 inch microdisplay. Meant to emulate a 15-inch VGA monitor, the microdisplay never offered a perfectóor even a usableóview. One-handed typing on the wrist-mounted keyboard was just as awkward, but using the preinstalled IBM ViaVoice speech recognition software made input simpler" (Oreskovic, 132). Oreskovic also stated, "The Xybernaut MA IV is surprisingly lightweight, and it allows for freedom of movement. However, itís totally unsuitable for mainstream business users, and the price is astronomical. But if you have to crawl around nuclear reactors for a living, this might be your next PC" (Oreskovic, 132).

Many people have reviewed the Mobile Assistant IV Pentium 233 wearable computer at various places including the International Conference on Wearable Computers. In a web page discussion list on the reviews of the MA IV, Daniel stated, "I am very automation oriented and I was extremely impressed with the total package, comfort, clarity, and quality of the MA IV, in particular the integrated voice activation software" (AOL members). John also had a good experience in wearing the computer and explained, "My two concerns with the product were: 1. How well can you see the image in the monitor and still maintain contact in the outside world and 2. How do you maneuver around on the screen without using voice activation. In answer to question one, when I put on the headset, I saw a double image while my eyes adjusted to the screen (it took about five seconds). Since I work with a 17-inch screen at work, I noticed that, after the short adjustment period, I was able to move back and forth between the image on the screen and the outside environment. I wear glasses and tried the unit both with the glasses and without. Had no problem reading the screen in either situation. In answer to question two . . . I was pleasantly surprised the unit has a trackball/two button system built into its body. I tried it out and found that it only took a short time to get the hang of maneuvering around with the trackball and using the buttons" (AOL members).

CONCLUSION

Wearable computers have begun their expedition into the business process. Through the use of this technology, productivity rates and efficiency should sky rocket. Presently, these computers will be more beneficial when used outside of the office. Wearable computers can be used in the business setting or for personal use. Although, the technology is currently being used mainly for business purposes. Wearable computers are among the "most compelling" in GartnerGroupís "10 Technologies Business Executives Should Be Watching in 1999 and Beyond" (CNet News, 1). According the article, "Wearable computers will be monitored closely by the manufacturing industry in the next two years" (CNet News, 2).

The cost for such an incredible technology is small compared to the benefits it can provide to a company. A large amount of money will be saved by employees having instant access to the information needed instead wasting quality time and having to walk back to the office or to an area with a computer.

Computers that can be worn will be extremely popular in the future. An interview was conducted with Robin Bono, the Director of Corporate Communications at Xybernaut Corporation. When asked if she thought wearable computers would be the "wave of the future", she responded, "Yes. Particularly with the rapid convergence of communication and computing devices weíre already witnessing" (Bono).

As processors, battery packs and hard drives continue to improve in power and capacity, the design of wearable computers will probably change. According to Thad Starner of MIT Media Labs, "The goal is to have the computer disappear into your clothes so that no one knows you have it" (Baran). Starner believes this type of system is only a few years away.

Future applications of wearable computers extend to "smart clothing", the idea that computer chips can be embedded in a person. "Thereís even a prototype for "smart underwear" that allows the wearer to change the temperature in a room, and wired "smart shoes" that record heart rates" (Hanrahan, 4).

This lightweight, ultra-mobile technology is the next big mania. Shelley Harrison, the publisher of Wearable Computing says, "This is a market thatís about to explode" (Kirsner). Mark Spitzer, president of the MicroOptical Corporation states, "Within the next three to five years, people will start wearing more electronics on their bodies" (Kirsner). His company makes tiny eyeglass-mounted displays like those included in the Xybernaut package. A wearable computing buff, David Covin, predicts, "Itís easy to look at a small community thatís excited about something and say that itís the next big thing, but I believe this is the next big thing. Itís just like PCs, or the Web when it first started" (Kirsner). In the near future, we are sure to see the impact of wearable computers on the way we conduct business. Wearable computing may definitely be the largest technological advancement of the century. Who knows what the future holds for such an incredible instrument.

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