What Makes a Computer Wearable?

Anytime, Anywhere


Who Says You Can't Take It With You?
Mobile Computing Is Coming of Age

By John Makulowich

In the technology tempest of today, mobile computing is a phrase that sparks the imagination. The images evoked cover the tanned executive in the credit card commercial, strolling across the sand at the beachfront resort toward a laptop under the cabana for a videoconference with colleagues.

For the occasionally connected company, there is the image of a personal, purse-sized device for the salesperson intent on checking e-mail and rearranging an appointment to accommodate a client. At the extreme is a vision of the ubiquitous, wearable computer, an array of microprocessors hidden in a multitude of mundane objects, from baseball caps to name tags to eyeglasses to rings.

Welcome to the age of the ever-present computer, the next best thing to anywhere, anytime connectivity.

In a nation where organizations seem obsessed with ever greater bandwidth and continuous access and availability - not to mention greater efficiency, effectiveness and productivity in reaching global markets - 7 by 24 takes on a whole new meaning.

Among those flexing their muscles in the mobile computing market is Lotus, long at the forefront of this IT segment. The company comes at you with a complete suite of products, from Lotus Notes and Notes Mail to Domino, Domino Mail and Weblicator.

For the mobile user whose mental model is information managers, Notes serves as a groupware and e-mail client, replete with calendar, group scheduling and access to intranet applications. Alongside is Notes Mail, the messaging client that connects to Domino and other open platform servers.

On the back end are Domino and Domino Mail, the server side of mobile computing, which offer access to e-mail stored in Notes from any World Wide Web browser as well as messaging services from remote sites such as airport kiosks. It is, in essence, your basic anywhere, anytime model.

Florida's Example

The last arc in the circle is the so-called Weblicator, which lets you work with data from the Web while off-line. Like similar products, this tool lets you copy Web pages or parts of them to your hard drive.

Among the worldwide users who are connecting increasing groups of staff with the Lotus products is Tom Hillstrom, director of communications technology in the Florida attorney general's office in Tallahassee, Fla. (legal.firn.edu). He is responsible for supporting mobile and remote users with time-critical information. That amounts to about 400 attorneys and 100 investigators out of nearly 1,000 workers scattered in 11 offices in north, central and south Florida.

"The push really came from Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who determined that it was critical to connect lawyers and investigators in the field to our office and our internal networks," says Hillstrom.

He notes that attorneys spend a great deal of time outside the office, either in court or on the road, doing chores such as obtaining depositions. The same goes for investigators. To give them professional support, the attorney general's office supplied attorneys and investigators with laptops, installed state-of-the-art digital resources for legal research and moved its operations into a Lotus Notes work-flow model.

"The systems we installed have improved depth, timeliness and accuracy as well as productivity - key elements that we would lose if people on the road were cut off. Now users can do legal research and participate in the work flow, whether to approve vacation time for a legal secretary or to key in information in the case tracking system," says Hillstrom.

On the horizon are personal information managers, like the PalmPilot series by 3Com Corp., Santa Clara, Calif. These will allow attorneys two-way connections through e-mail systems, an access mode that could help during trials when support staff need to relay last-minute citations about witnesses, for example.

More extranets, or Internet-based controlled access networks, also are in the works, with two in progress. One connects with 50 other agencies within Florida and contains such data as letters to lawyers, court actions that affect Florida, legal opinions that affect the government and a case tracking system where the attorney general is representing a specific agency. The other extranet, hosted by the Florida attorney general, shares case-related information among the 20 states involved in antitrust litigation with Microsoft.

Mobile Solutions

"The extranets are not so much for case management as for knowledge management. For instance, we have a number of Notes templates coded for emergency or semi-emergency situations, such as hurricanes. We are also responsible for monitoring price gouging during crises," says Hillstrom.

The extranets can even serve as an input database, he says. He used Florida's case against American Family Publishers as an example. The attorney general's office Feb. 2 charged American Family Publishers and its celebrity spokesmen, Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, with deceiving consumers in order to sell magazine subscriptions. A news release from the attorney general's office stated a civil complaint filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court sought penalties of up to $15,000 per violation of the state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. It also sought a ban on various tactics used by the company to foster consumer responses to its solicitations.

Another point on the mobile computing spectrum is the work of Noblestar Systems Corp. in Falls Church, Va. The $50 million, 400-person firm specializes in cutting-edge application and enterprise software development. It works closely with a number of government agencies on mobile solutions for troop deployment and equipment inspection.

Their latest is Scout TMS, a software framework development that lets a person use a PalmPilot or IBM WorkPad to share real-time data via modem (scout.noblestar.com). Within minutes you can access data stored in Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange and other back-end systems.

According to Dave Rensin, manager of the Mobile Computing Group at Noblestar, among the company's target markets is the occasionally connected enterprise, which includes an international lending institution and parts of the Department of Defense.

"A typical customer for us would be a governmental unit or company that owns PalmPilots or IBM WorkPads and wants access to data such as budget numbers or sales figures. We write the code that allows them to do that, basically architecting a mobile solution," says Rensin.

When asked why the mobile computing space had not taken off sooner, Rensin points to numerous "really bad false starts." It was not until the advent of the PalmPilot that the industry got it right.

With over 2 million units in circulation and more than 3,500 registered PalmPilot solutions providers, programs and add-ons are in abundance. Rensin highlights two especially interesting developments, one an add-on to the PalmPilot and the other an innovation that exploits wearable computing.

The first comes from Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y. (www.symbol.com), a company that defines its space as point-of-activity data management systems and which pioneered a wearable, hands-free bar-code scanner way back in 1992.

Its new product amounts to a bar-code scanner that sits atop the Palm III, the next generation PalmPilot. For Rensin, there's an enormous application, for example, in government warehouses for inventory and database updating.

The other development, the iButton, comes from Dallas Semiconductor Corp. in Texas. Worn as a ring, among other shapes, and made of steel, the iButton carries information on a 16mm chip you can transfer to a computer via cable connected to a parallel or serial port. According to the company, information is transferred between the iButton and host with a momentary contact at up to 142 kilobytes per second.

Some of its applications include adding computer memory to store digitized photos and tracking the number of hours a system is on for maintenance and warranty. The ring can also carry a temperature sensor to monitor spoilage, or a transaction counter to use as a small change purse.

At this stage of technology, the ultimate mobile computing application is the fully wearable computer, produced by such companies as Xybernaut Corp. of Fairfax, Va., with its Mobile Assistant II, and ViA Inc. of Northfield, Minn., featuring its ViA II flexible PC worn around the waist.

Wearable Players and Users

The Yankee Group estimates 33 percent of large U.S. corporations will provide service and sales personnel with wireless mobile data access by 2000, with a potential 21.3 million users by 2002. That could mean solid dividends for companies like Xybernaut and ViA.

Founded in 1993, ViA introduced its self-titled ViA in fall 1996, claiming it was the world's first and only flexible, wearable personal computer. The newest model, introduced in May, is the ViA II, which weighs only 18 ounces. Among its features are a 180 megahertz processor, 32-megabyte or 64-megabyte DRAM and a 1.6-gigabyte, 2.1-gigabyte or 3.2-gigabyte hard-disk drive. ViA II runs Microsoft Windows 95 or Windows NT operating systems.

The Navy is using ViA products in their NAVSEA Aegis Program, and one contractor already has delivered 160 wearables to the Navy for integration and testing on five ships. Another contractor is installing and testing the first set of wearables connected by a wireless LAN on the USS Sullivan for maintenance and aircrew applications.

Other ViA industry customers include automotive manufacturers for access to corporate databases for inspection and assembly operations, trauma care in emergency medical services and emergency rooms, stock exchange and member locations for real-time information and transaction handling on and off the trading floor, and the military for special operations, cruise missile fleet operations and multilingual voice translation in Bosnia.

Xybernaut, another key wearable player, recently announced it will combine IBM multilingual speech recognition with its expertise to design speech-activated wearable computers. This would allow users to access and collect computerized information hands-free in any of seven languages. Applications include inventory and sorting, equipment installation, inspection, trouble shooting, maintenance and repair.

Steve Newman, vice chairman of Xybernaut, pictures an IT future in which everyone will be in the mobile computing space. He welcomes it as a way to reach critical mass for this market. His company intends to roll out its newest model, the Mobile Assistant IV (MA IV), at the end of the summer.

"In our vision of the wearable computer, we compare the skill set necessary to use a computer to that of driving a car. We want to reduce it to the ability to see and to speak," says Newman.

The company now has working models smaller than cigarette cases. Newman feels $5,000 will be the price that will attract buyers.

The company's mobile computing product is known as the Mobile Assistant 133P model, a full-function, wearable, voice-controlled 133 megahertz Pentium computer with a head-mounted video display. The MA IV is the next generation based on the 233 megahertz Pentium chip.

Purchasers of Xybernaut's Mobile Assistant series include AT&T, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, Eaton Corp., Fujitsu, Battelle Memorial Institute, Mitsubishi, Rockwell International, Lockheed Martin and the Army.

The Mobile Assistant Series uses advanced features, like real-time, two-way video and audio communications, through radio frequency transmissions, integrated cellular linkups and Global Positioning System tracking. Its head-mounted display unit includes a two-way audio system and weighs less than a pound.

The monochrome image is equivalent to a 15-inch monitor at a distance of about two feet. The wearable computing unit weighs less than 3 pounds and can run applications on Windows 3.11, Windows 95, Windows NT, DOS and SCO Unix.

Wonderful Wearables

To Alex Pentland, the focus of wearables should be on the wearable and not the computer. As the academic head of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has mentored some of the stars on the horizon of wearable computers, including Steve Mann and Thad Starner.

"The idea of a wearable computer is a bad idea since it stresses the computer. What is important is the wearable part," Pentland says. "Our approach can be seen in the fashion show we held last fall. We brought in designers and asked them to think about how this would be something that people would use. The wearable computer is really a very premature idea." He says the biggest manufacturers of wearables right now are 3Com, pager makers and Motorola.

His point is there are many forms the wearable computer can take. What has to happen before it becomes a commodity, like the calculator, is people need to see a fit for it in their lives. In a small way, this has happened with salespeople and the PalmPilot series from 3Com.

Pentland does reinforce Newman's point about how the wearable computer space will fill in the coming years. He points out that of 160 companies sponsoring work at the Media Lab, probably 25 percent or more are working on wearables.

The lab is working with individuals in upstate New York and Norway on medical wearables using Nokia cell phones with cameras on the ends. The lab even devised name tags containing miniaturized computers that glowed a certain color when individuals with similar interests spoke to one another.

"You can begin to think of all kinds of things that are wearable and communicate and have a little bit of display," Pentland says. "They will allow you to extend the sense of the situation, much the way names tags could at a conference or seminar. When you put something on your body, you personalize it. Such devices have great potential to become part of our daily life."

What Makes a Computer Wearable?

If you want to delve deeper into mobile computing, you can connect to MIT's Media Lab and read "Wearable Computing FAQ - Version 1.0" written in August 1997 (wearables.www.media.mit.edu/projects/wearables).

There, the wearable computer is defined as one "that is always with you, is comfortable and easy to keep and use and is as unobtrusive as clothing. However, this 'smart clothing' definition is unsatisfactory when pushed in the details."
According to this Web site, the following are the characteristics of a true wearable computer:

Portable while operational: A wearable computer's most distinguishing feature is that it can be used while walking or otherwise moving around, unlike desktop and laptop computers.

Hands-free use: Military and industrial applications for wearables especially emphasize this aspect, focusing on speech input and heads-up display or voice output. Other wearables might use chording keyboards, dials and joysticks to minimize the use of hands.

Sensors: A wearable should have sensors for the environment. Such sensors might include wireless communications, Global Positioning System capability, cameras or microphones.

"Attention-getting": A wearable should be able to convey information to its user even when not being used, according to the information on the Web. For example, a wearable should be able to communicate to the user immediately if new e-mail has arrived and who it is from.

Always on: By default, a wearable is always on and working, as opposed to a pen-based "personal digital assistant," which normally sits in a person's pocket and only "wakes up" when a task needs to be done.

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