Xybernaut fashions wearable PC

Xybernaut Corp. earlier this month announced plans for the production of its next Mobile Assistant, a wearable computer that looks like the ultimate in computer geek fashion.

Sony Digital Products Inc. later this year will start manufacturing Xybernaut's Mobile Assistant IV, which is composed of a cigar box-size PC that is worn around the waist and a miniature monitor that hangs in front of one eye. Rather than using a traditional keyboard, users can select commands or input data through a pointer on the base unit that acts as a mouse or by using voice recognition technology and speaking into a microphone.

The PC will be equipped with a 233 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium with MMX processor, a hard drive with more than 2G of memory and a video graphics array display. The Mobile Assistant IV also will be able to dock with a desktop and will include wireless communication capabilities, said Edward G. Newman, chairman and chief executive officer of Xybernaut, Fairfax, Va.

The devices might look like a "geeky thing," said Kevin L. Jackson, chief technology officer at Sentel Corp., an Alexandria, Va.-based systems integrator, but it is only a matter of time before people begin to see their benefits and consider them socially acceptable, he said. Sentel has developed applications using wearable computers.

"Body-wearable computers allow you to work naturally because you interface with the computer naturally, the same way you interface with everything else in the world," Jackson said.

The most advanced Xybernaut wearable computer available now is the 133P, priced at $6,500. The monitor is sold separately for about $3,000. The PC features a 133 MHz Pentium processor, 64M of memory, a 2.1G hard drive, up to two PC Card buses, a built-in pointer that acts as a mouse and a 115 kilobits/sec infrared transceiver. It runs all Microsoft Corp. Windows software, or it can operate as a Windows NT server.

The PC part of the Xybernaut 133P measures about 8.5 inches long, 4.75 inches wide and about 2.2 inches deep. All the equipment together, including a keypad that fits on the wrist, weighs about 5 pounds.

Xybernaut has sold several wearable computers to federal agencies, which have deployed them in military projects and at a border crossing in Arizona, where Customs Service agents use them to help detect stolen cars, drugs and criminal activity.

Customs has tested three Xybernaut 133Ps at the United States/Mexico border crossing in Douglas, Ariz., to find out how the Xybernaut product might fit into the service's wireless needs, said William Holcombe, a project engineer in Customs' research and development branch.

The system is being tested as a possible replacement for radios, which guards use to relay car serial numbers, license numbers and other information to the base station for a check against a database, according to Jackson, whose company provided systems integration services on the project.

The response of border guards "has been a little mixed," Holcombe said, but Customs plans to continue studying the use of wearable computers and will decide where the equipment would be most efficiently deployed.

Some guards have had trouble seeing the small display, and there have been problems caused by background noise that affects the voice input, Holcombe said, but the hands-free operation is helpful in situations that require a search or use of a weapon.

"It's got a lot of potential that will give us the capability of checking more cars more efficiently," Holcombe said.

"Where the Xybernaut could come in handy is if it really got crowded, you could put [border guards] out in the lines of traffic waiting at the border," he added.

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