Heard on the runway: Hey, you sure wear that PC well

Heard on the runway: Hey, you sure wear that PC well

The Xybernaut MA IV has

By Jason Byrne

GCN Staff

The Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV might look futuristic, but this wearable computer can do real work today.

The user configures the various input and output options'head-mounted display, wrist-attached LCD touch screen, digital video camera, and microphone and earpiece'to fit specific tasks.

Xybernaut Corp. has done an excellent job of assembling the components and technologies. But wearable computers are still in their infancy.

For now, the MA IV is suitable only for users who want extreme mobility and are willing to cope with a fledgling product.

For instance, the head-mounted display is uncomfortable to wear for very long and awkward to put on and take off. Think heavy, unbalanced stereo headphones with lots of cables.

A curved plastic reflector bounces the screen image from a 1.1-inch color LCD display into one eye. The image quality is just fine at 640- by 480-pixel resolution, but the curved reflector makes the edges of the screen, including the Microsoft Windows task bar, look warped and unreadable.

Two reflectors come with the unit. One is opaque, for use when maintaining a field of view is not important. The other is transparent and gives a tinted view of everything in front of the user. But it does not work well under direct lighting.

Attachable components include an optional miniature digital video camera and a microphone and earpiece. The camera might be useful for networked MA IV wearers. The microphone and the voice recognition software, IBM ViaVoice, let the user give voice dictation. The earpiece delivers sound feedback from the computer.

The microphone and earpiece attach to either side of the headset. One handy thing about this and other Xybernaut components is that they can be configured for right- and left-handed users. But that also compounds the usability problem.

Multiple cables going every which way make the unit cumbersome.

I mounted the CPU and battery pack on a belt, although a vest is also available and might be easier to use. It was hard to strike a balance between having the cables short enough to stay out of the way but long enough for free movement.

A wrist-mounted QWERTY keyboard is available for entering data. Users who prefer not to deal with the overhead display can choose a wrist-mounted LCD touch screen for both display and data entry.

Soft touch

The wrist display's 640-by-480 color screen measures a little more than 8 inches and is similar in size to a subnotebook's screen. The advantage is that it is a touch screen with built-in commands invoked by tapping with a finger or stylus.

I had mixed results with both. A finger tap often brought no response. And there was a noticeable difference between where the stylus contacted the screen and where the display activated.

The wrist-mounted touch screen was easier to use than the head-mounted display. A miniature keyboard also is included for use on a flat surface.

Standard mobile computers still need a flat surface. The MA IV, in contrast, works in any position almost anywhere.

NASA reportedly is evaluating it for zero-gravity environments.

What about the processing power behind the mobility? The MA IV comes with a 200- or 233-MHz Pentium MMX processor, which is fine for forms applications or documentation. But voice recognition slows to a crawl. The delay might not be very noticeable in dictating a few words into a field, but you cannot dictate entire paragraphs with any speed.

Memory ranges from 32M to 128M. My test unit had the maximum, which definitely helped.

Even more RAM would be valuable for users who choose Microsoft Windows NT as an operating system; the MA IV also comes with Windows 9x.

The unit has a good combination of rugged and common mobile features. The removable hard drive is mounted in a shock-absorbing gel. The case is magnesium alloy. You get a 2.1G or 4.3G hard drive, a built-in pointing device, two Type II PC Card slots, a display port, and Universal Serial Bus and port replicator interfaces.

Box Score''''
Mobile Assistant IV

Xybernaut Corp., Fairfax, Va.;

tel. 703-631-6925


Price: $4,995 up

Pros and cons:

+Bleeding-edge mobility

+Flexible, useful components

'Improvements needed in technology, integration and ergonomics

Battery life depends on the components at work. Count on three hours or less for most applications.

Charge it

Many users likely would be willing to carry an extra battery if the system could support more than one and keep running while a dead battery was switched out.

Options include wireless LAN cards, bar code scanners, 24X CD-ROM or USB-attached Zip drives and a third-party Global Positioning System receiver.

Overall, the Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV sends a mixed message: The future is now, but there's a better future ahead.


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