Imagine, if you will, this scene from the future. A doctor — an anesthesiologist to be precise — enters the step-down unit of a university hospital to check on the recovery of a patient who underwent heart surgery 48 hours earlier. While noting the pattern registering on the EKG, the physician checks a screen. The numbers on the LCD (liquid crystal display) indicate that the person may be in some pain. A glance through the doctor's eyeglasses reveals that the patient's blood pressure is running dangerously high.
The anesthesiologist hurriedly leaves the room. A malpractice suit in the making? Hardly. Turns out, the hypertension sufferer the doctor was monitoring was in a room way down the hall. And this isn't the future. It's November 2004 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Welcome to the world of wearable computers. Once relegated to the domains of Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry, on-body computers are steadily, inexorably gaining mainstream acceptance. At Vanderbilt Medical Center, body-worn computers (including eyewear that doubles as monitors) enable doctors to do the impossible. "You don't have to be in the room to see the physiologic machines now," says Dr. Leland Lancaster Jr., an assistant in Vanderbilt's Department of Anesthesiology. "Instead of having to wait five minutes for a page to come through and then picking up the phone, or trying to run from room to room, everything is right there for us to see."
Business users, too, are beginning to see real use for the technology. Telecommunications company Bell Canada equips some 300 field-service technicians with ruggedized, on-body computers that — unlike laptops — can go with workers up utility poles. Likewise, mechanics at Memphis-based Federal Express carry on-body computers, entering maintenance notes into a database so that parts runners can populate repair carts with needed pieces. And Detroit- and Minneapolis-based ground personnel for Northwest Airlines now tote wearable computers, along with bar-code wands and body-worn printers, to process boarding passes for passengers standing in line.
In fact, wearable computers are starting to become a more familiar sight to consumers. McDonald's Corp., the largest fast-food seller in the world, deploys wearable computers as point-of-sale terminals at some drive-in windows. Instead of standing in front of squawk boxes and cash registers, employees stand curbside and talk to patrons directly. "The speed of order-taking actually goes up; the quality of the orders goes up," says Ed McConaghay, vice president of wireless mobile computing solutions provider InfoLogix. "You get what you ordered more often, and customers really like the interaction."
As advances are made in miniaturization and wireless technology, expect to see an even greater range of products. Scientists believe powerful microprocessors will one day be embedded into everyday objects, things like rings and bracelets and key chains. That future is not far off, either: this year, Fairfax, Va.-based manufacturer Xybernaut Corp. won a patent for a computer that fits into a shirt collar.
Beats a Shoe Phone
Initially, manufacturers of wearable computers depended on the U.S. military for much of their revenues (shipments on body-worn computers will top $560 million by 2006, predicts tech consultancy Venture Development Corp.). And in the ongoing war on terror, branches of the armed services and government agencies remain the primary buyers of on-body computers. Says Tom Steffens, principal technical director for homeland security at Fairfax, Va.-based Anteon, an IT company that provides advanced engineering services to government clients: "If [border-control agents] have a small wearable and a biometric ID device that has a camera and a fingerprint, they could refer back to a database that's connected to law enforcement."
Industry watchers note, however, that Anteon, along with rivals Xybernaut and InfoLogix, has won converts in the business world by sticking to more-practical uses of its technology. That, in turn, has helped dispel the notion that wearable computers are best suited for soldiers and secret agents. "We're seeing these companies grow over time because there are some real-world applications that do offer tangible benefits to users of the technology," asserts Richard Dean, program director at research group IDC in Framingham, Mass. "There is traction with a number of industries, especially maintenance and support."
Indeed, no less a force than IT bellwether Microsoft is backing wearable computers. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has invested heavily in SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology), a much-talked-about platform that enables wristwatches and other items to receive and display all sorts of information, including instant messages. While SPOT watches are little more than glorified PDAs, future versions will likely offer sizable leaps in functionality and processing power. The key? Most likely, advances in wireless bandwidth.
Advances in wireless access are spurring the current interest in body-worn PCs. Guest-services agents at select Hilton hotels, for example, are equipped with Xybernaut's Atigo. The wearable computer, with a base price of $1,995, is connected to the hotelier's network through a wireless hookup. At one Hilton hotel in Hawaii, Atigo-toting agents meet travelers at the airport, at curbside, or in the lobby, where they register the guests. The company, which has been evaluating the technology for two years, recently announced it is expanding the mobile check-in service. Says Thomas B. Spitler, vice president of front-office operations and systems at Hilton: "We're hoping we'll see increased loyalty and a larger share of their travel wallets."
Back-office functions are benefiting from improvements in wireless access, as well. Conductors at freight transporter CSX Corp., based in Jacksonville, Fla., carry wearable computers so that they can better manage their rail orders and help get invoices out quickly and with fewer mistakes. A conductor who leaves a location with 30 cars, for example, may soon discover the need for 60 cars. With a wearable computer, the request can be made on the fly and the changes entered into the billing system immediately.
This is not to say that the current crop of wearable computers doesn't have drawbacks. Far from it. On-body PCs are still too heavy, and headsets tend to jiggle. Battery life remains an issue that probably won't be solved until new power sources (such as body-heat batteries) are perfected. Further, LCDs are not well suited for wearable computers, particularly for employees who encounter different light sources during the course of a day. Analysts say the arrival of organic, light-emitting diodes may solve the problem, but that's well down the road.
Another obstacle: coming up with more intuitive ways for people to use the machines. "Most of the mobile computers still make you stop what you're doing in order to interact with the system," notes Jackie Fenn, who tracks emerging trends and technology for research group Gartner, based in Stamford, Conn. Fenn believes advances in speech recognition could lessen the problem. "You need a way to control the interaction when you have more than just a limited set of things to do. It's a big challenge."
The biggest challenge for the makers of wearable computers, however, may be overcoming the creepy factor. While body-worn computers are remarkably useful machines, they also tend to look like something from the Borg's closet. Administrators at Vanderbilt grappled with this very human issue after purchasing several Xybernaut wearable computers to develop the software to run its "Vigilance" system. "Doctors initially were concerned that patients might be worried seeing them wearing so much equipment," acknowledges Lancaster. "But when the patients find out what the equipment does, they seem very happy."
Karen J. Bannan is a Long Island, N.Y.-based freelance writer.