Wearable systems may cut labor, save time

As part of a NASA education project, students at two colleges determined that an emerging class of wearable computers has the potential to reduce the weight and workload of astronauts in space.

Wearable computers, available from several manufacturers, are designed for users who need to access information or applications on a computer but do not have the luxury of sitting down with a standard desktop or laptop. Wearable systems usually have small processing units that can be strapped to the body or easily carried and have modified keyboards and monitors to help users who do not have two free hands or much room with which to work.

Students at St. Leo College, St. Leo, Fla., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., determined that such devices could reduce labor for astronauts and free up time during space missions for science experiments by automating day-to-day tasks such as system checks and health monitoring.

The experiments were part of NASA's 3-year-old Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program, in which 48 teams of students performed selected experiments over a three-week period in March, according to Judy Rickard, a reduced gravity program test director at Johnson Space Center.

Though the students have generated a lot of data, the program is "a little young" for its findings to be used by NASA, said Donn Sickorez, a JSC university affairs officer. The main goal of the program is to allow students to "experience science and derive useful data," he said.

The St. Leo and MIT teams designed and ran the experiments using Xybernaut Corp.'s Mobile Assistant IV wearable computers and working aboard an airborne NASA KC-135, which flies roller coaster-like patterns to simulate weightlessness.

Xybernaut's 5-pound package includes a cigar box-size PC worn around the waist and a miniature monitor worn over the eye. The computer also can be worn in a vest or on the back, with options such as a wrist-mounted keyboard or flat-panel display, said Carol Covin, marketing director at Fairfax, Va.-based Xybernaut.

MIT's team used the MA IV as a biomonitoring device and multipurpose tool. Sensors monitored heart rate and blood oxygen, and the computer recorded the data.

The students also used the system to access a checklist for a series of manual tasks. The data showed that, on average, it required 10 percent less time to perform the tasks using a computer checklist than it did using a paper checklist, MIT senior Chris Carr said.

The long-term promise of such an innovation would be to lessen the approximate 100 pounds of weight capacity devoted to checklists, flight plans and other paper on space shuttle flights and devote that capacity to scientific purposes, Carr said. That weight equals an estimated $500,000 in payload costs, he said.Even more paper is generated onboard the shuttle by ground control, which faxes up flight plan changes daily, Sickorez added.

St. Leo's experiment was designed to test whether wearables can improve training time and accuracy in tests and maneuvers compared with traditional audio instructions. The experiment used the Xybernaut equipment to demonstrate how to solve a Rubics Cube puzzle, said team member Matt Dooris, a senior at St. Leo.

The experiment showed that people can complete simple tasks 7 percent to 13 percent faster in a microgravity environment using a wearable computer as opposed to audio equipment, Dooris said.Wearable technology is in its infancy, and there is opportunity for higher growth in this sector compared with the computer industry as a whole, said Stephen Hall, a principal with the Center for International Business, a technology consulting group based in Arlington, Va. Because Xybernaut was the "first to start out" in this arena, it has the most experience, he said.

NASA is looking at using wearable computers for ground applications such as firefighting. Sentel Corp., a systems integrator and federal value-added reseller, has sold ViA Inc. wearables to researchers at the Kennedy Space Center, said Kevin Jackson, chief technology officer of Sentel, Alexandria, Va.

Sentel offers Xybernaut MA IVs to the federal government at a 6.7 percent discount off the $5,000 retail price while the company waits to get the new product on the General Services Administration schedule, Jackson said.

Xybernaut wearable computers also are being used by Air Force researchers to explore hands-free control of the cursor in maintenance applications by means of a headband that records "small movements of the forehead," Xybernaut's Covin said.

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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