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Wearable Wear

Greetings, programs!

By Andrew J. Breitenbach
June 1999, issue 28

And with that greeting from the classic man-machine feature "Tron", welcome to the unveiling of Pen Computing Magazine's first column devoted to wearable computers. I'm Andrew Breitenbach, Associate Editor, and have been with the Pen Computing staff for about a year and a half now. In our efforts to broaden the scope of personal-interactive computing, it was brought to our attention that we were ignoring for the most part a thriving sector of keyboard-free computing: wearable computing. David MacNeill, Executive Editor, suggested that I should produce a section devoted to this segment, and I gleefully chomped at the bit.

Wearable computers are one of those fuzzy areas that are best described by, "I know it when I see it." The immediate goal of wearable computer manufacturers is to sever the individual's need for a laptop computer. There are many situations, especially in industrial and military applications, where having a free lap and two free hands to use a computer is completely impractical. The next goal of wearable computer manufacturers is to provide hands-free computing-essentially taking computer interfaces one step farther than pen-based systems. For example, to use a pen tablet, you still need one hand free to wield a pen or touch a touchscreen and one forearm to hold the tablet. However, if both of your hands are deep inside a jet engine's innards, you cannot afford to tie up those areas of your appendages.

Hence, speech recognition systems and head-mounted displays come into the forefront with wearable computing interfaces.

The Players
In this first installment, I'd like to introduce to you the major players in the field-the companies that produce complete wearable systems. So far, there are four: ViA, Xybernaut, Symbol Technologies, and Phoenix Group Inc. (PGI).

ViA is a name that consistently observant readers of our magazine may recognize: so far we seem to mention them about once a year in our magazine. Though their flagship product-the ViA II Wearable (seen above)-has not changed in a year, it is still quite innovative and worth looking into. Speculating on what ViA will do for an encore has kept me salivating with anticipation.

ViA II Flexible PC
The ViA II is truly what the press materials state: a high horsepower, full computer that is flexible and worn around your waist. The computer, including hard drive, weighs just 22oz, and has dimensions of 9.75" x 3.125" x 1.25".

The ViA II sports the 180MHz Cyrix MediaGX and 5520 chipset, with 32MB DRAM standard (64MB optional), a 1.6 GB 2.5" IBM hard drive standard (3.2 GB optional), one Type III PC card slot (which supports two Type II cards), a hot-swappable Lithium Ion battery for continuous operation (battery life is 30 or 43 Watt hours depending on battery type requested), and the Microsoft Windows 95 operating system.

The ViA II has an RS-232 serial port, two USB ports, PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, and an AC adapter with a DC/DC automotive adapter option. The flexible PC also has full-duplex audio for advanced speech interfaces-an audio headset consisting of a microphone and speaker is an available peripheral option. There is 1280x1024 VGA support, 800x600 flat-panel support, and a digital display interface (PanelLink).

A pen tablet can be an option as the interface between you and the computer: a 6.5" TFT color flat-panel display with 640x480 resolution. It has a resistive touch interface, using a passive stylus or finger for input. A holster attached to the ViA II belt securely holds the display when not in use.

Finally, not only is there a head mounted display option (OEMed from VirtualVision-once a division of Telxon, now a part of the FED Corporation-accessible at, but there is a tremendously useful docking station option, enabling you to forego a "master control" desktop PC altogether.

ViA Solutions
Ford Motor Company has been using the first generation of the ViA wearable on its paint inspection line. The units' ability to respond to spoken commands speeds the quality assurance process, and frees the inspectors' hands to being rectifying problems while they report on them. Before line workers donned the wearables, each defunct report would require the reaching for, marking up, and replacement of the paper records that accompanied each vehicle down the line. Now, not only can workers simultaneously report and fix defects that are small enough to be addressed on the line, but the inspectors can issue voice commands to tag and reroute individual vehicles for more specialized attention of the main line.

The US Navy is another demanding customer for ViA wearables. They need to be able to control the flight and operation of a drone aircraft using speech recognition-from the open door of a flying helicopter.


The Mobile Assistant IV is the latest from Xybernaut, and was quite effectively displayed at last Fall's Comdex Las Vegas for those readers fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough, depending on how you look at it) to attend. It consists of a CPU module and either a head-mounted display (HMD) or a flat-panel display (FPD), depending on what you want. The CPU module has a magnesium alloy case with a shock-mounted hard drive (2.1 GB removable standard, 4.3 GB optional), 32MB SDRAM (64, 96, and 128 MB options), and a 200 MHz Pentium MMX processor (233 MHz optional). The unit is 7.5" x 2.5" x 4.6" and 1.98 lb. It has dual PC card readers (CardBus), a built-in mouse, a built-in full-duplex sound card, and ports for the HMD or FPD, power, USB, and desktop replicator. The replicator has serial, parallel, VGA, keyboard, audio, and USB ports. There is a variety of operating systems to choose from-Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, and Linux-as well as a speech recognition engine (currently the IBM ViaVoice 98).

The HMD is about 1.04 lbs, is VGA color monocular, is left or right side wearable, and has a microphone, an earpiece speaker, and an optional integrated miniature video camera. The FPD is about 1.32 lbs, is VGA color, has built-in programmable buttons, a built-in digitizer, and a pen or touch screen.

Exciting Things Afoot for Xybernaut
On April 27, 1999, Xybernaut was granted Japanese patent #2,873,268. It is viewed as a landmark patent covering Xybernaut's wearable computing concepts and technology. This Japanese patent corresponds with the U.S. Patent 5,305,244 issued on April 19, 1994 by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which is Xybernaut's earliest patent. Ed Newman, Xybernaut President said, "We are successfully building an international IP position for Xybernaut in the wearable computing industry. Xybernaut intends to both aggressively license world-class manufacturing and marketing organizations, as well as require compliance of our worldwide IP position."

The Mann-Machine
Steve Mann, possibly the world's only full-time cyborg, wrote in the May/June 1999 issue of the MIT Technology Review, "Although I spent many years developing WearComp in relative isolation, I welcome efforts to commercialize wearable computers. At the vanguard is Xybernaut, based in Fairfax, VA. Xybernaut's latest model [the MA IV] is being manufactured by Sony, indicating that the Japanese electronics giant has an interest in what some believe will become the Walkman of computing."

A Xybernaut Xolution
One interesting solution was from the SENTEL Corporation, a leading Xybernaut systems integrator that provides complete turnkey wearable solutions. One of their most important projects was for the US Customs Service. US customs officers on the Arizona-Mexico border search outbound vehicles for currency and weapons, and verify that vehicles aren't stolen. When processing these vehicles, officers must query remote databases via a terminal linked to the LAN. In the time it takes for the officer to walk to the LAN terminal and do a query, a driver attempting to cross illegally could flee across the border.

By using a Xybernaut wearable computer, the officers could access the remote database without leaving the vehicle's vicinity. This not only avoided the cost of expanding the wired LAN to outbound areas but also improved customer service. Staffing requirements were also reduced because they no longer needed to have an officer remain near a vehicle being processed while a second officer went to a terminal to run a query.


Symbol Technologies, which has a computer being reviewed elsewhere in this issue, has a wearable computer of sorts called the WSS 1000-a wearable scanning system that with the RS 1 Ring Scanner redefines hands-free: "slip on the ring, and your index finger becomes a scanner; slip on the WSS 1000 and your forearm becomes a workstation." Even without the arm-based 'station, the RS 1 Ring Scanner allows you to read bar codes without interrupting workflow.

The tiny yet durable two-ounce Ring Scanner is built around a high-performance Symbol scan engine, which aggressively reads symbols from four to 25 inches. The ring is comfortable and easy to use-merely "aim-and-shoot"-important for today's business environment where training resources are limited.

The WU 1000 is a DOS-compatible computer which supports both batch and spread spectrum wireless LAN communications. The 9oz. wrist unit features a four-line by twenty-character display and a 27-key alphanumeric keyboard optimally positioned for viewing and keypad input. The CPU has 640KB RAM/512KB nonvolatile memory for both batch and on-line spread-spectrum data collection. The extended power of the lithium-ion battery ensures a full-shift operation and charges in just over two hours. The Symbol Spectrum One radio card allows realtime two-way data communications between workers and the host computer for enhanced productivity and efficiency.

Symbol Technologies:

Phoenix Group Inc. currently is no longer marketing their clever Hummingbird Pocket PC, though their follow-up will be unleashed some time in Quarter 2 of 1999-any time now! The original Hummingbird was a small 486-based computer in a blue plastic box that could fit into your pocket. You could connect it and use it any whichway. The reasons for PGI's decision to not continue marketing it are interesting (though you can still access its page on their website). As Pat Wilson of PGI explained to me:

"We don't really taut the Hummingbird any longer even though it seemed perfect as a wearable. We've learned that most users (particularly in our venue) prefer a display of some sort and that is what we're developing. To take my opinion one step further, not only is a display desired, we target the "outdoor" market thus sunlight readability is a requirement, or at a minimum, daylight readability."


In closing
In my next column, I'd like to show you some of the interesting goings-on in the wearable computing labs across the country, and also delve into the unique peripherals that have a rather symbiotic relationship with wearable computers.

If your company has a wearable computer or peripheral or uses wearable computers as a solution and would like to inquire into editorial coverage, please don't hesitate to send materials to Andrew Breitenbach, Associate Editor, at the Pen Computing Magazine editorial office, or to

The author would like to acknowledge previous contributions by Brad Nemer for the construction of this article.

Andrew J. Breitenbach can be reached via e-mail at

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