Army takes the military lead on wearable computer use

Sept. 1, 1998
ARLINGTON, Texas - A U.S. Army technician recently repaired a cargo truck using a wearable computer as one of his primary tools. This demonstration is but the latest example of the new breed of wearable computers.

By Chris Chinnock

ARLINGTON, Texas - A U.S. Army technician recently repaired a cargo truck using a wearable computer as one of his primary tools. This demonstration is but the latest example of the new breed of wearable computers.

Not only are more demonstrations planned, but it is also becoming clear that wearable manufacturers cannot make this market happen all by themselves. Manufacturers of wearable computers need help from alliances with large industrial or defense contractors as well as on-the-job users.

Without this help, wearable computers most likely will not develop into viable solutions; they will simply represent another technology in search of an application. Without the applications to document the benefits of the wearable computer, users do not buy.

As a result, wearable manufacturer Interactive Solutions Inc. (ISI) of Sarasota, Fla., has become part of a consortium that includes Raytheon Systems Co. of Arlington, Texas, the New Jersey Army National Guard`s Training Lab at Fort Dix, N.J., and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, N.J.

This Raytheon-led group, called Operation Smart Force, received a $1.2 million contract from the U.S. Army`s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) in Warren, Mich., to develop training and repair applications for the Army`s family of medium tactical vehicles.

For the demonstration, an Army technician who received only one hour of orientation on the wearable computer and its application software, diagnosed and repaired five pre-determined truck system faults. He did so by using voice commands to control the computer and small flat-panel display, on which he viewed text, schematics, animations and video clips.

Despite its utility, the wearable computer can confront its users with an array of hidden costs. Carol Covin, director of vertical markets at wearable computer manufacturer Xybernaut of Fairfax, Va., warns that buying the wearable may only be about 5 percent of the ultimate investment.

"It is all the support infrastructure like Interactive Electronics Technical Manuals (IETMs), wireless LANs, special software and hardware that can be big tasks," Covin says. "Finding applications where moving to a wearable has a big and immediate productivity impact is key."

Signing up big players to support wearable applications development is also key. For example, ISI is also working with General Motors Detroit to use wearables for diagnosing and repairing automobiles. GM has now developed the IETMs for the two most complex systems on the Cadillac Northstar engine: the power train and charging system.

According to ISI`s VP of Operations, Stradford Bushby, this IETM takes up 2 gigabytes of disk space on their wearable Mentis PC, and has more than 10,000 screens. Currently, three GM Cadillac dealers are evaluating the wearables. The Northstar engine system is standard on Cadillac Seville, Eldorodo, and Deville.

Other automobile manufacturers also are putting wearable computers to work. Experts at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., are using 140 wearable computers from ViA of Northfield, Minn., to enable mobile workers to perform quality-control tasks on the Ford Ranger pickup truck manufacturing line. Similarly, Mercedes Benz uses wearables from Xybernaut to speed the recalibration of welding machines on the assembly line.

Driving similar military and commercial activity are the potential benefits of wearables. U.S. Army officials, for instance, want to diagnose tank problems on the battlefield to determine if the armored vehicles can be repaired quickly, or if they must be towed away. With automobile manufacturing, improving quality means fewer warranty repairs, and getting a machine back on-line faster saves substantial amounts of money.

Making the infrastructure robust is a point that ViA`s president David Carroll likes to make. ViA officials are working on distributed, redundant, wearable systems that enable servers to fail, yet not loose any data or operational capabilities. They also have several voice-recognition enhancements that run on top of other speech recognition engines, such as those from IBM Corp. of Somers, N.Y., or Dragon Systems Inc. of Newton, Mass. These are designed to improve recognition rates in tough or rapidly changing environments, or to integrate dictionaries from multiple vendors.

For example, under a U.S. government small business innovative research grant, ViA experts demonstrated the capability to control an unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV) with voice commands processed by a wearable computer.

That success has lead to the recent award of the Wearable Aviation Ground Station program to ViA`s military partner, General Dynamics Information Systems, of Bloomington, Minn. The program, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., will feature a wearable computer from Boeing`s Huntsville, Ala., facility, and will seek to demonstrate a 115 kilobit-per-second uplink ontrol signal to the UAV, and an NTSC video downlink to the wearable.

Wearable computing platforms are still in the evaluation phase. But users are beginning to understand the amount of work necessary to implement a wearable computing solution - as well as the benefits. After all, the inclusion of laptops in the computing infosphere took time too and required some new thinking to accomplish.

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