by Rick Smith (May 8, 2000)
Xybernaut packages a solid computer in an exciting form factor that should inspire whole new categories of computer use. In fact, all you have to do is strap one on to feel that you are witnessing history in the making. Much like the auto industry in the early part of the 20th century, the wearable computer industry is just beginning.
David M. Schweppe, former VP Marketing of Xybernaut wearing the Mobile Assistant
When I tried the Xybernaut Mobile Assistant for the first time, the uniqueness of the experience impressed me enough that I wondered how to use it in my DAILY life - not for some vertical corporate application, but in real life, strapped on me throughout the day. The right applications will turn this unique form factor into a successful computing companion.
I am an avid user of full-sized pen computers (not sub-sized PDAs) and have been for years. Having tried dozens of models (and owning many of them), I've come to the conclusion that productively USING a computer, as opposed to passively carrying one, requires applications tailored to the workflow of the device and its user. For instance, reporting on trade shows from the exhibit hall floor proved terribly cumbersome using Word or general purpose database tools, ill-adapted to "field-conditions." It wasn't until I developed a custom VB application, that the combination of portable hardware AND software begin to pay off.
Likewise, now that Xybernaut has created this tightly integrated, mobile form factor, the application work now begins, to create user interfaces that will make the mobile information worker, wearing a Xybernaut, become more productive.
Each application may need to adjust its user interface to take advantage of this platform's mobility, speech recognition capability, audio system and display. It won't simply be enough to take desktop applications, that take full advantage of a 103 key keyboard and a mouse, and simply stick them on your belt. Changes also need to be made to the Xybernaut itself, to make it more approachable and easier to use. Some of these are:
Larger on-screen buttons
Ever try to click on a tiny object on a virtual screen floating beyond your forehead? Trust me, it isn't easy. But if the "click zone" were larger, it would be much easier to click while walking. Tab and enter keys could be also placed on the unit itself to make it faster to press that "OK" at the bottom of a modal dialog box. No need to have to navigate the cursor to a precise point while you are moving. I don't care how good you are with any mouse, pointer, trackball, touchpad or Xybernaut pointing device, pressing the Enter key is much faster than any pointing device.
Command and control software
The ability for anyone to be able to control the basic Windows features with their own voice and without training would be quite helpful, especially for OK, Cancel or Next. It would make standard applications much easier to navigate.
Mouse controller rotation
In pen computing, screen rotation is a fact of life. For you "non-penners" out there, it is possible to hold most pen computer tablets either vertically or horizontally and Windows for Pen provides a way to rotate the screen via software and hardware, so the on-screen images match the way you hold the tablet. While the Xybernaut screen doesn't need to be rotated, the cursor control needs to be similarly shifted by 90 degrees.
My earthbound, conventional definition of up, is towards the sky. If a virtual screen is in front of my right eye, up is still towards the sky. When I control the Xybernaut and want to move the cursor closer to the top of the screen, I tend to want to move the cursor upwards, towards the sky, not forward. When I want to move the cursor to the left side of the screen, I have to move the Xybernaut control towards the sky. If you think this is confusing in words- imagine having to do it. Knowing which direction to move the control to get the desired motion is very important. Sure, eventually you can get used to it, but you also tend to start each motion tentatively, observing what happens and then correcting it. But this takes extra TIME and causes you to always think about each motion, not the task to be accomplished - it isn't second nature. Eventually, you may get used to it (after all, your brain "flips" the images that your eyes capture), but adding the option to let the user rotate the control motion by 90 degrees, would greatly aid productivity.
Dual video outputs.
It is unfortunate that you must decide if you want to use either the virtual headset OR the wrist mounted, pen enabled tablet - you can't use both at the same time. Because there is only a single video port, you must reboot in order to switch displays. And you still have to carry the alternate unused display with you. I mentioned this problem to Xybernaut when I first saw their device "up close" and personal at Fall Comdex 1998, but it still has only one video output, even though Windows 98 can support multiple monitors!
Imagine walking around with this very cool headset and you decide that want to take some notes. What are you going to do? Talk them in, while someone else is speaking? Carry a steno pad? Carry another computer for notes? No. You should be able to write these notes on your colorful wrist mounted, Pentium powered, "pen computer". This wrist mounted screen could also be used as a programmable keyboard or dynamic control panel to help control information being displayed in your eyepiece display. Using the Windows 98 virtual screen capability, you could then drag items from one screen to the other.
Again, imagine virtually surfing the Web on a Xybernaut (wireless modem connected to the PCMCIA/PC card connector) and you find a page that you want to show your friend next to you. Do you take the virtual display off, try to adjust it so they can see it and then try to share it with them? No, simply drag the item over to your wrist so you can both easily share. The possibilities are endless, dreaming of new ways to use this hybrid device.
Better audio output design.
Trying to put a small head set (ear piece and microphone) on top of a head phone sized head mount, that you already have on your head, is very cumbersome. Why not integrate the output speakers and microphone in the same, well engineered manner as the Xybernaut virtual display, which is capable of either right or left eyed use?
Given these minor changes and the time to develop and integrate some critical mobile applications (notetaking, GPS navigation/route saving, voice dictation), this product could find lots of general use by many information workers.
With access to specialized databases, a technician could easily obtain their trouble tickets, view an item's repair history or obtain any necessary repair manuals, via the Internet or local hard drive storage. They could even get their customer's approval signature for billing. If a mag stripe reader is added to the wrist display, the technician could even accept credit cards being a real mobile office!
Imagine what any worker that has easy access to any piece of information they need, as they are working, would be able to accomplish. Our current shortage of knowledgeable workers could be easily alleviated, by less technical people, who could be trained in real time while performing their job, guided by experts from a remote location using a two way camera or via a digital movie. What if your auto repair technician had access to automotive engineers when your car comes in for the 3rd time with same problem? The problem would happen once, somewhere in the world, then that information could be easily be shared with the other mechanics. They would even be able to see what the problem was and how you fixed it. And most importantly, the engineer would be able to make design changes to correct the problem assuring continuous quality improvement.
Again, the Xybernaut is an excellent, reliable platform that can be integrated with an information worker's work flow. Existing desktop applications will need to be altered for this unique interface, much like pen applications are different from their desktop counterparts and new applications will need to be written from scratch to take advantage of this interface. These investments will then help empower the mobile information worker to accomplish more.
Only then will more people look at wearable computers as a productive tool, instead of a unique novelty. When we tell our grandchildren that we used to sit still at a desk with a keyboard and mouse to control a computer, their mouths will drop open in amazement, as they make a note of this "unbelievable fact" to tell their friends, on their miniature, wearable computer.
© 2000 Rick Smith All rights reserved.