There was a time when my awe, curiosity and even jealousy were aroused by an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” in which The Beav acquires a wearable, seemingly magical, device capable of undisputedly proving his ability to walk 20 miles in a day. Today, when it comes to wearable devices, my wonder-struck gaze rests on the Apple iPod (10,000 songs in a single coat pocket!) and the Adidas 1, a running shoe with a 20MHz microprocessor in its arch, enabling it—by deducing the hardness of the surface and the weight of the runner—to adjust the amount of cushioning required for proper protection and a comfortable run. (I’ll say that again in case you missed it: The sneaker knows what you need.)
Attaching instruments to our bodies with the intention that they might enhance an experience or aid in a task is a long-evolving concept (the first written account of the eyeglass dates from 1268; the first wristwatch was invented in 1907; in 1979, Sony gave the world its first walkman) that has led us to this moment of the “wearable computer” in the enterprise. And still what constitutes a wearable computer continues to evolve. If once we thrilled over computers small and light enough to slip into a shoulder bag, today engineers push the envelope again toward a relationship between computer and user that’s more intuitive, less intrusive.
The MIT Media Lab, well know for its research in this field, describes a wearable computer as one that “should be worn, much as eyeglasses or clothing are worn, and interact with the user based on the context of the situation.” It’s with similar intentions that manufacturers within the mobile service industry are developing devices that offer users a new relationship with their computers, such as allowing them to keep their hands free, their eyes on a task, or the freedom to visit a customer with a countertop’s worth of devices lightly clipped to a beltloop. (And The Beav thought the pedometer was cool.)
Xybernaut, a leader and innovator of wearables since 1990, has teamed
its technological know-how with the hardware of strategic partners such as IBM, Sony Digital Products, Hewlett Packard and Datria Systems. The fifth-generation of Xybernaut’s Mobile Assistant, the MA5, was developed in partnership with IBM and is being celebrated by users. Weighing in at one pound, the MA5 works with a range of displays offering full-color VGA or SVGA desktop resolution and can be worn on a belt or suspenders or in a vest, shoulderpack or backpack. Its inherent versatility is emphasized with each new deployment.
For example, International Truck, a truck and engine manufacturer, equips the quality-assurance inspectors on its assembly lines with MA5s worn on utility belts and paired with head-mounted displays (HMD) and voice-recognition software. “These guys need their hands free,” says Michael Binko, VP of corporate development at Xybernaut. “If something doesn’t look right, they actually have to pull it off the line to do a further inspection. So they decided to interact with the computer and the information available to these technicians by using voice.” Using voice commands often aided by drop-down menus, technicians can get to the information they need and view it through the HMD, which offers the same view as on a desktop monitor. The voice software has an astonishing 99 percent accuracy rate—which is especially significant considering noise on the factory floor can reach 100 decibels. Additionally, says Binko, “The MA5s can be connected via Wi-Fi, so that the data they’re entering with the drop-down menus can populate fields in a database, which doesn’t necessarily have to be stored locally on the device. It can be pinging a server on the backend.”
Pennsylvania-based Infologix, recently named a “Rising Star” by Deloitte Technology’s Fast 50 program, is another manufacturer seeing success with its wearable, highly flexible “core computer,” which when deployed as a belt-worn model is branded as the ViA II-CT. “What we think is interesting about the II-CT is that we’re able to package it in different ways to fit different kinds of mobile computing environments,” says Ed McConaghay, VP of InfoLogix. “With different kinds of docks, port adapters or port replicators, we’re able to put these things on carts, on forklifts, on ATVs and on a variety of body-worn belts or vests. What we try to do is address all the ways that people want to use mobile computing—not just tell them one way to do it.”
InfoLogix recently released the II-CT IG, which includes a 1GHz Transmeta Crusoe TM500 processor (an upgrade from the II-CT 667, which uses a Crusoe 667Mhz processor), making it “the most powerful of the wearables out there, as far as we know,” says McConaghay. II-CT users can choose their preferred processing power, as well as expand functionality with handheld displays, wireless LANs, GPS, cellular phones and cameras, and its six-hour lithium-ion batteries are hot-swappable, to avoid disruption.
Generally, customers purchasing InfoLogix products have one of two types of needs, suggests McConaghay. “They either have very high numbers of transactions—McDonald’s, for example, uses the ViA-II in its drive-through lane to speed up throughput,” says McConaghay, referring to four McDonald’s chains that have served record numbers of drive-through customers since equipping workers with the II-CT—in one case, an additional 50 cars an hour. “So each transaction isn’t very valuable on its own, but the accumulation of those transactions makes this a very valuable tool. Or, they have very high-value transactions—they’re used on airplanes or in manufacturing environments, or warehousing and logistical environments, where they’re able to bring a lot of the technology to bear at the point of work.”
Opportunities are opening for wearables where laptops and tablets aren’t quite the perfect fit. “There are all of these jobs that could be much more productive, much more valuable, if instead of having the worker go to a smart location, we make the worker a smart worker,” enthuses McConaghay. “I think the trend in wearables is going to be more powerful computers in smaller and more interesting packages.”
While some wearables create formats many of us could never dream up, others simply make everyday devices more effective and efficient than we ever thought possible.
“Our industrial designer, Matt Wilkins, and I have been thinking about wearable scanners for about four years now,” says Tom Greer, project manager at Intermec, with a little self-deprecating laugh. “What if you wore it on your fingers? What if you wore it on your hand, like brass knuckles? What if you stick it on your head? Just lots of different form factors. And what we learned was, if you want to give people free use of their hands—which is really what people want—what you need to do is get the scanner out of their hands.”
The Intermec SF51 (the S is scanner, the F for flexible) is a durable, 9.3-ounce scanner with a wireless personal area network radio based on Bluetooth protocols. It can connect to Intermec terminals without a base station, offers 5,000-plus scans with a one-hour recharge and can read poor-quality and damaged bar codes from 50 cm away. The SF51 doesn’t attach to the user’s belt clip with a dangling cord—“Even if a cord zips back into place, it’s kind of a pain in the sense that, if you’re trying to reach something up high or down low—think of someone in a warehouse reaching back a few boxes—and you’ve got this string, it’s kind of a pain. Especially if you let go by accident, it’s going to hit you,” says Greer. Instead, it attaches with a magnet.
“These are rare-earth magnets, which are quite a bit stronger than what you normally see,” continues Greer. “If they’re within two inches, they’ll snap together.” Which means a technician isn’t staring at his waistband half the day—he can keep his eyes on his work and simply bring the scanner to his waist. The magnets are strong enough (and the scanner light enough) that they find each other and securely snap into place.
And should a bar code need to be printed, a worker could quickly print one (via Bluetooth) on the Intermec PB40, a lightweight, portable printer typically worn on the user’s waist.
If the measure of convenience used to be having something in the palm of your hand, then today convenience is having your hand emptied in favor of a spot on your belt. Nextel Communications has teamed with several vendors to offer such devices, including the Creditel PowerSwipe, an end-to-end payment processing solution. Using a Motorola phone, the Nextel national packet data network and Creditel’s digital encryption technology, vendors can accept credit card payments at the point of sale.
“By using the PowerSwipe product, Nextel customers can turn their phones into POS devices that can increase employee productivity and customer satisfaction, help reduce processing and back-office costs and help to stop fraud,” says Ernie Cormier, VP of business solutions for Nextel in a company publication.
Wearables are small, lighter, more convenient, more innovatively designed and in some cases less expensive than the devices they’re taking the places of. This is made possible, in part, by companies such as Transmeta, the microprocessor manufacturer responsible for the 1GHz Crusoe in InfoLogix’s ViA II-CT, among many other devices. Innovations such as those by Transmeta make for lighter wearables, which make them a form factor more likely to be adopted. For example, Transmeta developed microprocessors that run so cool that fans—which add considerable weight but were necessary to prevent machines from overheating—are no longer needed.
“We’ve also just launched innovative first solutions for leakage,” says Greg Rose, director of marketing for Transmeta. “Transistor leakage is one of the biggest problems plaguing the industry today, especially if you shrink down your geometry,” which is what Transmeta has done by a third with its new 1.6GHz Efficeon processor. “We announced a group of technologies that will lower the leakage and lower the amount of power and heat generated when the system’s in standby or a sleep state, which gives you longer battery life and less power generated for less heat.”
More power, less physical computer, greater efficiency, increased ease of use—wearables are closing in on the goal of interacting with users based on a context, almost literally keeping us connected while keeping out of sight. “We’ve gone from desktops to notebooks and now to mobile computers, ultra-personal computers and wearables,” says Rose. “What it’s given people is kind of a ubiquitous access to information.” •