Xybernaut wearable PC not always a good fit

Ghostbusters, Star Trek and Terminator come to mind when you see someone wearing the Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV. Although the MA IV may look like something out of the movies, it was designed to meet real-world tasks.

The MA IV is a wearable computer designed for mobile applications such as maintenance, repair, inventories and inspections. Employees can call up manuals, drawings, equipment history, databases and part numbers - all while in the field, whether walking a warehouse floor or perched atop a utility pole.

On the Arizona-Mexico border, the U.S. Customs Service uses Xybernaut wearable computers to process vehicles crossing the border and make sure they are not stolen. To verify a vehicle, customs officers must query remote databases via a terminal linked to their local-area network. In the past, an officer had to walk from a vehicle to the LAN terminal to conduct a search, which left time for a driver of an illegal vehicle to escape. Now, however, officers can process vehicles on the spot, allowing for greater security and saving on the cost of expanded wiring.

The MA IV also is part of a NASA education project in which students from two colleges conducted experiments with wearable computers to determine the potential to reduce the weight and workload of astronauts in space [FCW, May 3].Because different tasks pose different requirements, users can configure the MA IV with various input and output devices.

Configuration options include a head-mounted display, a digital video camera, a wrist-mounted keyboard and a wrist-mounted flat-panel display with touch-screen capabilities.

The CPU and battery pack mount on a belt, which can be worn alone or attached to a vest. I preferred the vest because it helped distribute the weight evenly. However, I found that after about 20 minutes of wearing the vest, I was getting hot, even in an air-conditioned room. It also was difficult to find a balance between adjusting all the cables so that they were short enough to stay out of the way yet long enough to provide maneuverability.

The head-mounted display has a curved plastic image reflector that bounces the screen image from an approximately one-inch square LCD display into the user's eye. I found the 640-by-480-pixel resolution to be good, but the image reflector was difficult to position correctly. The display and the microphone/earpiece attach to either side of the head-mounted display to accommodate either left- or right- handed users. Unfortunately, the head-mounted display is uncomfortable to wear for long, and I constantly had the urge to tilt my head to try to get the display image positioned correctly.

Users who prefer not to deal with the head-mounted display can opt for the wrist-mounted flat-panel display. It is a 6-inch diagonal display with a touch screen you can use with a finger or stylus. Unfortunately, I found problems with both. Frequently, using a finger brought no response, and there was a distinct difference between the stylus point of contact and the response it elicited. In other words, the screen did not seem to be calibrated properly.

A wrist-mounted miniature keyboard also is available. I found the keyboard to be fairly easy to use, having reasonably sized keys that were responsive to the touch. Unfortunately, the wrist strap is clearly designed to be worn on the left arm and may prove cumbersome for left-handed users.

The MA IV is available with a 200 MHz or 233 MHz Pentium MMX processor, and its memory options range from 32M to 128M of RAM. You can get a 2.1G or 4.3G hard drive, which is gel-mounted in a magnesium-alloy case for improved shock absorption, and a lithium-ion battery. The CPU case contains a mouse device similar to a notebook pointing stick, two Type II PC Card slots, one Universal Serial Bus port, a video port and a port replicator connection.

The MA IV can run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95/98 and Windows NT operating systems. We tested the MA IV with Windows 98 using Business Application Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/98 benchmark. The MA IV recorded a SYSmark/98 score of 66, which is about what we expected to see from an Intel Corp. Pentium 233 MHz processor. Our unit contained 96M of RAM and a 4.3G hard drive.

Overall, the Xybernaut MA IV is a good product clearly targeted to a market of users who need extreme mobility and are willing to put up with the inconveniences inherent in the design.

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