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Turn on, jack in and geek out with wearable PC

January 7, 2000
Web posted at: 4:32 p.m. EST (2132 GMT)

By D. Ian Hopper
CNN Interactive Technology Editor

(CNN) -- So there I was, driving down the highway at about 65 mph, soft drink in my hand and Xybernaut wearable computer on my head. I just finished listening to some MP3s -- being way beyond those silly low-tech car CD players -- then I mutter 'Outlook' to check e-mail before loading up "Quake III Arena."

Hurtling along city streets in the car while rushing through a deathmatch level flashing past my right eye, I see blue and red lights, and they weren't in "Quake." A gruff highway patrolman distracts my attention as I get nailed by a baddie wielding a super shotgun.

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"What do you think you're doing, don't you realize I just got a quad damage power-up," I cry.

Well, not really. But it was pretty amazing to consider that I could, with the Xybernaut MA IV wearable computer -- though I shouldn't, and neither should you.

This full-featured PC has voice control, an arm-mounted keyboard and a mouse-like device similar to the eraser joystick on IBM Thinkpad laptops. It's not exactly a powerhouse, however. The fastest current model has a Pentium 233 processor, up to 128MB of RAM, and a 4.3GB hard drive. Still, it does what it's intended to do while being small enough and light enough to wear comfortably.

A Xybernaut with all the bells and whistles also includes a small flat-panel display, head-mounted display, vest, video camera mounted to the side of the headset, external floppy drive and a 'full port replicator,' which has a variety of plugs all on one stick.

By now you're wondering how much this thing costs. A P233 Xybernaut MA IV with all major peripherals comes in at just barely under $10,000. The cheapest system -- P200, 32MB RAM, 2.1GB hard drive and flat panel display -- is about $5,000, $5,500 if you want the far cooler head-mounted screen.

This is definitely not for consumers -- yet. Right now Xybernaut is marketing to corporate users, and is doing a pretty good job at it, too. They just introduced an upgrade that bumps to hard drive to 8 gigabytes, and rolled out handwriting recognition functionality. According to Xybernaut, the company has "seen the demand for it increase significantly over the last few months" and has closed deals, some worth up to $2.8 million.

The current system is tailored to maintenance, inspection and troubleshooting work. A typical user may be a phone technician who spends part of his day up a telephone pole. Up there, the tech would not only have manuals available hands-free, but a supervisor could give him advice while watching through the mounted camera and speaking through a cellular connection provided through a PCMCIA card in the unit.

According to Xybernaut, most people use the screen rather than the headset monitor. It's much easier to use the former, but that preference is bound to change once consumers get access to it. What's the point in using a wearable computer if you can't gaze off into space with light from the pixels bouncing off your eye?

The headset display is a real pain to align correctly. The screen actually faces outward, with a mounted mirror reflecting the image back to the eye. Once you actually see the screen, plan on spending lots of time tilting, twisting and bending in order to be able to see the whole desktop. After a couple uses, however, it became simpler.

The mounted camera, dubbed the XyberCam, can record or transmit video, and can be twisted to see almost any direction.

The Xybernaut is battery-powered, but can also be plugged directly into an AC plug. The battery rests on the left hip attached to the belt, while the CPU is on the right. The whole contraption weighs in at 28 ounces. It doesn't feel especially heavy, since the weight is distributed well, but you will feel it after extended use.

There are only two real weak points in this well-designed system, and they both involve control. Using Windows 98 -- although Linux was recently announced as an alternative OS -- you're all but required to use a mouse. As mentioned above, the mouse control consists of a raised rubber button on top of the CPU with buttons on either side. It's not only extremely touchy, but the alignment is confusing. Since you're controlling the mouse with your hand dropped to the side, moving the mouse pointer up actually requires you to move the raised button forward, away from your body. It takes a lot of getting used to, and would be easier if it wasn't so sensitive.

The other problem isn't wholly Xybernaut's fault. Xybernaut uses ViaVoice for voice recognition. In theory, the user can open and close programs, perform simple menu functions and respond to dialog boxes, and dictate messages. In reality, as you might expect, it's not so simple. Let's face it, voice recognition still isn't so hot. After modulating your voice correctly, programs do respond to pre-configured commands -- but not if there's much background noise.

It had better be very quiet up there on the telephone pole. The dictation is just amusing. Imagine giving dictation to a person who's partially deaf, and has very little knowledge of your language or the context of your idea. Most sentences sound like fortune cookie messages translated by Yoda. Thankfully, arm-mounted keyboard is easy to use for short messages.

While the average user isn't going to run out and get a Xybernaut computer just yet -- although there is a consumer version to be debuted at Comdex 2000 for sale in 2001 -- some concern should be given to how you're going to look in this thing. You can bet that the consumer version will be sleeker and lighter, but you're still going to stand out in a crowd with that hardware and thousand-yard stare.

Some of the most gracious comments I heard in reference to someone wearing the unit was that they looked like a Borg from Star Trek or a fighter pilot. With all the jutting wires and the freaky headset, the Borg idea was apt. But mostly the comments were disparaging, predictably centering on the word "geek."

Sure, it looks silly. But so do women in one-inch platform shoes and kids who hike up their underwear. And they're not playing "Quake" at the same time.

Portable devices get wearable
November 19, 1999
How to recycle that obsolete computer
June 23, 1999


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