Cyborgs at Your Service
Hands-free computer technology will help companies provide better customer service.
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Thanks to advances in voice recognition, display technology, wireless communications and user comfort and convenience, wearable computers are poised to contend for a major share of customer service and support tasks traditionally performed by desktops, laptops and pen tablets.

Consider this: A mixed-merchandise catalog fulfillment company gets an order. Once processed and approved by a telephone, Internet or mail-order sales agent, it goes to an integrated, automated call center where it is forwarded to accounting, inventory, shipping and other related departments.

On the warehouse floor, an inventory picker wearing a two-pound, belt-mounted computer and a heads-up display, earphone and microphone receives computer-generated instructions to pull the item ordered from a specific location and transfer it to shipping. Already on the move, the "picker" verbally acknowledges the order. If new, a temp or simply unfamiliar with the given location, he or she can verbally request "map" and almost instantaneously receive a diagram directing them from where they are to where they need to be, a transparent diagram that seems to "float" in the air in front of them as they follow it--all without taking their eyes off what's in front of them or their hands off the controls of their forklift.

Once the item has been retrieved and delivered to shipping, the command "Unit 14, clear" will automatically route the employee to the next job. The entire system is designed to ensure that the right package is delivered to the right customer within the promised time frame. If the operator encounters "label confusion" when "collecting" merchandise, the command "details" will call up SKU numbers and related information. Printers mounted on forklifts, pallet movers and in fixed locations can produce shipping labels in response to instructions wirelessly transferred from the inventory picker's computer. Attaching the labels would, to be sure, add a task to that employee's job description but could increase shipping department productivity and accuracy. Accountability--who picked up what and when--is built-in and virtually unerring.

Cyborg styling
Insights into such future tech systems were the highlight of the 5th Annual International Conference on Wearable Computing held recently in McLean, Va. Hosted by industry pioneer Xybernaut Corporation, the confab's dominant theme was that the days of "Cyborg" styling and forearm-mounted mini-keyboard or touchpad data-entry devices are drawing to a close as "wearable computer" becomes synonymous with "hands-free computer."

"What we're really looking at is changing the way people do business," says Xybernaut Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Michael Jenkins. "There are many practical uses for wearables that didn't exist until recently, that came about simply because of the pace of technology. Things like single-chip global positioning satellite processors, advances in digital signal processing and speech recognition and, of course, the growth of wireless data transmission."

On-body computers are the ultimate paint-by-numbers kits; you never have to take your eyes or hands off the things you're working on. "One of the major attractions of wearables to industry is that the skill level of the people needed to handle customer service calls is going to go down. Putting things together is going to be interactive to the point where a repairman could say 'I'm holding the parts together but can't tighten them, replay the last 10 seconds of the movie' and they'd see a replay of just the bit of the step-by-step assembly video they haven't gotten done... see it at the same time they're also looking at and manipulating the parts," says Jenkins.

Cyborg Speedbumps
For these types of applications to become widespread, however, several technological hurdles need to be overcome. Units have to become smaller, lighter, more powerful, easier to put on and take off and less encumbered by boom-mounted LCDs, microphones and videocams.

Of these impediments, several should be history by Q1 2001. Xybernaut says its next generation of Mobile Assistants, the V series, will have 500- or possibly 600-megahertz CPUs (up from 233 megahertz). The battery pack, now a separate box connected by a cable, will be integrated into the computer module. Using proprietary technology from new strategic partner Texas Instruments, Jenkins expects to accomplish this without compromising much of the MA IV's five-plus-hour battery life.

He also foresees substantial improvements in size, weight, reliability and convenience as another of Xybernaut's new (Q1 2000) strategic partners, IBM, continues development of its Microdrive technology. Microdrives are smaller, lighter, take more abuse and reduce the power consumption and heat generated by traditional hard drives. "I can also populate them with data as I need it," says Jenkins. "So if I'm working on a Chevrolet today, I can pop the Chevrolet disc in, and if I'm working on a Ford, I pop the Ford disc in."

A continuing major roadblock on the road to hands-free computing is the oldest bit of legacy technology in the package: the microphone. "Military conflicts are generally very noisy and a speech recognition-based interface will be useless if commands spoken by the soldier cannot be recognized over the din of war," says Peter Fisher, research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory.

But the "din of war" is far from the only reason that teams of scientists from research powerhouses such as MIT, IBM and the University of Toronto are scrambling to devise non-audio transducers to migrate word from humans to computers. The unspoken reality is that as long as speech recognition programs require operator training (or, to put it in Armonkspeak, "enrolling") to achieve a 95 percent accuracy rate, on-body computing's future--at least in the enterprise--is limited. Employers need wearables that can be hung on a peg in a locker room and efficiently used by any employee whether he or she mumbles, shouts or twangs.

A "microphone" that hears vibrations or electrical impulses, it is hoped, will be a far better "translator" than one which only hears sounds. It will also be a key component of wearable computer systems that will, to restate a cliché at least as old as the analog microphone, eliminate customer problems before they occur.

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