Are wearable PCs for the field in sight?
- By John Breeden II
- Oct 31, 2012
A recent notice from the Air Force asking for help in implementing wearable computers is actually nothing new. For at least the past 10 years, feds and other public-sector employees have expressed interest in hands-free computing. In fact, the GCN Lab attempted to review quite a few of the systems. Unfortunately, even some of the better models, like the Xybernaut MA IV, had flaws that outweighed its advantages. For the most part, the wearable computers we tested were too heavy, too fragile and too weakly powered for field work.
Given almost two decades of some successes but also many failures, you would think that agencies might have given up interest in employees wearing headset computers in the field. But the case persists for why wearable computers would be helpful in certain situations, and those arguments are compelling.
An Air Force IT officer who recently visited our offices explained that there are places where a laptop PC really can’t go. In some situations, devoting just one hand to holding a smart phone can be distracting or dangerous. Consider an aircraft hangar. Technicians servicing jets and other equipment often need to refer to technical specifications just to analyze if a component is working properly. Should something need to be repaired, a manual is almost always required as an accuracy check if nothing else.
But lugging around thousands of pages of printed documents isn’t practical. And looking at that data on a screen or tablet that has to be balanced across a knee or set down nearby in less than ideal conditions isn’t often much better. Hence, wearable PCs have instances where they could prove useful, if only a system that is light and powerful could be found.
We still need to test drive one of these units, but the Motorola HC1 seems to go a long way toward addressing public-sector needs. For starters, the actual head-mounting gear looks to be reasonable and rugged. It’s about the size of a bicycle helmet, but is mostly made up of elastic-like straps, so it can fit on almost any head size. It’s also able to go under a helmet or hardhat, a real plus if your work site happens to require such things. It also keeps the weight down to a respectable 22 ounces.
Another reason the HC1 may have an advantage is its ruggedness in the face of forces it’s likely to encounter. First off, it passed MIL-STD-810 testing with drops up to four feet onto concrete. It’s also rated IP 65 against dust and moisture, so while it can’t go underwater, it is protected against just about all types of blowing sand and wind. (Besides, if your head is underwater for a long time, you probably have more to worry about than your computer.)
It’s also protected against vibration, which is good since it’s going to experience some of that just bobbing on top of a user’s head. And it can withstand extremes in temperature, another plus given the operating environments people in the field have to endure.
The HC1 has a color SVGA Transmissive TFT micro-display with an adjustable backlight. Its native resolution is 800 by 600, and because it sits so close to a user’s eye, it seems like a 15-inch monitor.
The unit is driven by an 800 MHz dual-core processor. It has 512M of RAM and 512M of Flash memory for programs. The entire unit can be controlled by voice recognition, a nice touch so that users can truly remain hands free. It even has a microSD card slot, though it might look funny plugging in a data chip to the side of your head.
There is also an optional high-resolution camera that mounts to the side of the unit. That could be a real boon for first responders as well as military personnel. The camera can connect to experts back at base using the integrated 802.11 wireless connection. The HC1 can also sync using Bluetooth to almost any smart phone, so a hub for data communication could be created that way.
Despite a lot of stumbles along the way, civilian agencies and the military in particular are still interested in finding wearable computers that can help them conduct important field work. The Motorola HC1 might be that solution, but even if not, its features have been sorely needed. If nothing else, it is an important advance in wearable computing.
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.