BOSTON — To be at the cutting edge, it's no longer enough to carry around a notebook with more computing power than the entire world had in 1959. Nope. To be "tech chic," you have to wear the thing.
Today, some workers are belting or strapping on all manner of "wearable computers." By 2000, you could wear one too. Think of it as the Sony Walkman of our age.
"We are at a real cusp," says Ted Selker, a fellow at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. "People are wearing technology all over them already [such as pagers and electronic organizers]. The question is: Are we going to integrate them?"
Dr. Selker thinks so. He's working on an "electronic wallet" that combines a cellular phone, beeper, scanner, and a small keyboard and screen to keep track of names, addresses, and appointments. The unit even includes an electronic credit card, which users can program to be their Visa card one time, their American Express card the next.
An IBM colleague has dreamed up a companion technology: the wearable computer network. It uses an incredibly weak electric field running through the body to carry data. Someday, perhaps, you'll exchange electronic business cards every time you shake hands with someone.
So far, the electronic wallet and handshake are laboratory curiosities. But several small companies are beginning to sell "wearable computers" to specialized markets. For example, Navy technicians are testing wearable computers from a small Fairfax, Va., company called Xybernaut.
The idea: Repairs will be better and quicker if technicians have hands-free access to maintenance manuals. Xybernaut's canteen-sized Mobile Assistant II straps over the shoulder and connects to a visor-like unit that includes earphones, a microphone, and a small computer screen about one inch from the eye. That way, technicians can keep their hands working while their eyes focus back and forth between the on-screen instructions and the machinery. They can flip to another electronic page with voice commands.
It's not clear whether head-mounted displays are a long-term answer. "Nobody wants to put this thing in their hair," says Jim Carroll, president of ViA Inc. Instead, the Northfield, Minn., firm has designed a belt-type computer with a six-inch touch screen that workers wear in a holster.
Ford paint inspectors are using ViA technology in Britain. With their hands free to probe the car, the inspectors tell the computer what imperfections they find and where, using stock phrases like "paint drip" and "left panel." The computer translates the speech into data and sends it to the factory's computer network, using wireless communication. That way workers can fix the specific car while the painting department makes adjustments to ensure the defect won't be repeated.
One of the most successful wearable-computer companies is Symbol Technologies in Holtsville, N.Y., which has sold nearly 18,000 units to UPS distribution centers. Workers strap a 9.5-ounce computer screen and keyboard to their wrists, which is connected wirelessly to a computer network. The network tells them which station to go to and which box to pick up. Workers point to the item with a special scanner ring, which logs the bar code and sends it to their wrist computers. The device not only cuts down on errors, claims Girish Rishi, senior product manager at Symbol, it also leaves a complete record of who did what when.
OK, so maybe you don't want a wristwatch computer with a scanner ring. But who knows? Twenty years ago you didn't think you'd be jogging with Jane Fonda's workout cassette either.
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