Wearable Computers

In the broad spectrum encompassed by speech technology, wearable computers have to this point quietly moved from their own small niche. That niche, however, is beginning to draw its own share of attention by posting significant growth of its own. The evidence is mounting. Roger Byford, president of Vocollect, said recently his company's revenues have doubled every year since 1996. And it apparently is going to continue. "I think the explosion is a matter of public perception. We've been concentrating on the distribution end of the business since 1996, and since then our annual revenues have been doubling consistently," Byford said. "We anticipate that doubling will continue for awhile. Somewhere along the line those numbers will appear on the radar screen, and suddenly we'll be known as an overnight success." "It's not just a niche market anymore," Dr. Edwin Vogt, chief technical officer at Xybernaut, said. "Wearable computers are visible on workers who are seen every day by the general public." What is causing this consistent growth by the wearable computer industry? "There are a number of reasons," Byford said. "For the past few years, certainly, costs have come down, but that's probably not the driving force. In our case, at least, it's a broadening of the product. The product that we offer includes not only the physical implementation of putting speech on a wearable device, but also the software both inside that device and external to it, giving the customer a complete product offering." At ViA Inc., another U.S.-based wearable manufacturer, Joe O'Leary has a vision of wearables going the route of cell phones. "Maybe this is a pipe dream, but I remember about 12 years ago my boss gave me something that looked just like a lunchbox and told me to keep it with me at all times," said O'Leary, ViA's vice president of sales and marketing. "It was a mobile phone. Very few people had them because of the size and cost, and you had to leave them in your car. Now they're everywhere, and so small they're easily hidden and transported. "I think that could happen with wearable computers," O'Leary said. "I see a day when instead of a belt through the loops on your pants you put on your wearable, in either black or brown, of course, and it becomes part of your wardrobe. For an input device you have a watch, and this wearable performs all the functions of communication that now involve several different devices." Wearable computers have been around since Steve Mann first strapped an Apple II computer to his back to control his photographic equipment in 1980. In the two decades since that first attempt, wearables have become firmly integrated into the workplace, especially in data-gathering jobs and in situations where the users need to remain hands-free. According to a definition by Kevin Jackson, a Virginia-based consultant, wearable computers are just what the name implies: computers actually worn on the user's body. All wearable computers contain a CPU, battery power supply, user interface for input and control and an indicator system. In recent years, that user interface has, in many designs, been speech recognition. "In the applications today the user interface is much easier," Vogt said. "That's where speech comes in. It makes an easier method with which to query the system. The user's hands are free of the traditional keypad or mouse responsibilities, allowing him to use those hands to follow delivered instructions generated by his own voice queries." Vogt said the implementation of speech is one of the reasons wearable computers have seen such growth in recent years, and Byford agreed. "Technically speaking, (the wearable computer) can conduct a limited or constrained conversation with its user, who wears a headset; practically speaking, what it can do in the sort of traditional sense of voice computing is free up the user's hands and eyes for their job, giving them a means to communicate instantly with the warehouse computer systems without tying up their eyes and hands, providing a combination of speed and accuracy that other systems can't match," Byford said. One example of this idea is the deployment of Xybernaut Mobile Assistant III wearable computers by the U.S. Customs Service. Customs officers on the Arizona-Mexico border search outbound vehicles and verify that these vehicles are not stolen. This task requires them to query three mainframe databases over the USCS's wide area network. In a prototype system designed by Customs and SENTEL Corp., customs officers wear a Xybernaut computer with a head-mounted monitor, microphone and speaker. While connected to the USCS WAN, an officer reads aloud the license plate number and other identification data. With the Dragon Dictate speech engine, a database query is created and the response is presented to the officer in the monitor. (Kevin Jackson, Speech Technology Magazine, 1999). "The definition of mobile computing implies hands-free access, and you need speech technology to truly be hands-free," O'Leary said. Vocollect's most recognizable customer in recent years has been Wal-Mart, where store employees utilize wearable computers for the purposes of store inventory. Handheld scanners read the products' bar codes into the store's database, while voice input allows the worker to count the items and input numbers. Wearables are also being used at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where scientists are looking into how they can improve their quality assurance operations. The proliferation of Internet access, however, has also provided a jumpstart to the wearable computer market. Vogt cited the fact that companies no longer need to employ large, mobile technical support staff and technicians, but instead may use the client's on-site workers equipped with a wearable computer. The technical manuals may be posted on a company's Web site, and on-site repairmen can use wearable computers to access the data and make the necessary repairs. "We're working with a German company which has a very high market share in printing machines, big machines, for newspapers and such," Vogt said. "These are very complicated machines all over the world, but this is actually a small company in terms of numbers of employees. Their problem is how to handle maintenance and support, and interestingly enough they use the Internet as a driving force in their communication system. <> "They can utilize people of lower technical skills in front of the machine, and with the wearable computer they can do the repair job," Vogt said. "It's the same with an auto mechanic, also in assembly line workers for cars. You use the system with the wearable computer; the worker does the repair job while working with the support center remotely. Speech allows them to communicate with the online technical manuals and the technicians while allowing them to use their hands to make the repairs." Vogt mentioned Caterpillar as one U.S. company driving its repair and support staff in this manner. O'Leary takes that a step further by noting that some jobs also require visual interfaces. "We're still essentially a visual society, and sometimes there are situations where people may need to see a schematic or other visual," he said. "In those cases speech is limited, but when combined with other forms of input can provide the user with different choices, depending on the needs." Standardization, Byford said, will also simplify the deployment of wearable computers. "We're very glad to see the standards developing and we're pretty aggressive about adopting them," he said. "We're a member of the VoiceXML standard, because standardization makes it much easier for our mainstream customers. It simply makes it easier for them to consider adopting the technology. The consumer, in the end, does drive the standards." With the prolific growth of the wearable industry in the last four years, Byford said he feels the focus will be primarily on improvement of existing products rather than the development of totally new products. "What we'll see probably is mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary in the short term," he said. "I suspect we'll see some integration of related technologies such as voice overwriting communications. I think we'll see a shift even further toward standardization. Whether that standard is XML or VoiceXML or some modification or adaptation of one of those standards, I'm not sure that anyone can answer that question too clearly." O'Leary refers to his vision of wearables becoming a ubiquitous presence. "It is quite possible that one day the wearable computer could be free to the users, who would pay for different service modules," he said. "For instance, you might go to your local electronics store and pick up the wearable, and then sign up for various monthly packages providing Internet access, a personal assistant, communications, interfaces with your home network - the possibilities are endless." "What we've seen in the last 18 months is that the technology adoption in the distribution industry has shifted from being limited to the early adopters in that business (Wal-Mart is our most obvious answer) to a much broader spectrum of mainstream companies," he said. "In the words of Jeff Moore, who wrote Crossing the Chasm, we believe that we've certainly got one foot across the chasm, and the other one is moving pretty rapidly." That being the case, Byford's small blip on the speech technology radar screen representing wearable computers may soon become an eye-catching icon to financial investors and potential buyers.
Gary Moyers is the executive editor of Speech Technology Magazine.
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