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Sunday, July 14, 2002

Technology

Wearable computer creates personal connection and draws stares
Gizmos

By Mike Langberg
Knight Ridder

One day we may all resemble the half-mechanical Borg from ''Star Trek,'' with miniature computer displays glued in front of one eye and a glazed look in the other as we wirelessly surf the Internet without interruption.

If this is humanity's future, we'll know when the mutation started: In early 2002 with the shipment of a product called the Xybernaut Poma.

The Poma is the first truly ''wearable'' personal computer designed for consumers.

It's a crude effort -- far too expensive at $1,499, and far too awkward to operate. But it could be a taste of things to come.

Xybernaut (www.xybernaut.com), based in Fairfax, Va., has been building wearable PCs for several years and selling them to big corporations and the military. These customers have a clear need for what are known as ''head-mounted displays,'' or HMDs -- soldiers don't want to get shot while glancing down to read e-mail from officers far away from enemy lines.

The Poma, introduced in March, is half the price of Xybernaut's leastexpensive product for the business market.

What you'll get with the Poma, I can testify, is a lot of strange looks and teasing from family, friends, coworkers and strangers on the street.

The Poma's HMD is a silver band that fits around the forehead with a prominent silver and black module the size of a golf ball that dangles in front of one eye; the wearer gets to choose between the left or right.

When the HMD is properly adjusted on your head, an almost impossible feat, you see a clear, bright full-color computer screen hovering in front of your face. Everyone else sees a hopeless geek.

There are two other parts to the Poma. The computer itself is an 11-ounce unit the size of a small paperback book that slips into a holster and can be clipped to a belt. A handheld ''optical pointing device,'' a 1.8-ounce nub that's somewhat like the touchpad on a laptop computer, takes the place of a mouse.

The Poma computer has a Compact Flash slot for inserting memory cards and other devices such as 802.11b wireless Internet cards. Using an 802.11b CF card, I went online with the Poma through my home wireless network and through the T-Mobile service (www.tmobilebroadband.com) offered at most Starbucks stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This wasn't an experience I'm eager to repeat, however -- even without the sniggering of others.

For starters, as I mentioned above, the HMD is very difficult to position properly. I'd get the bottom of the screen in focus, but the top would be blurry, or visa versa. Or I'd get the screen positioned just right, and then the image would shift out of focus as soon as I raised an eyebrow or turned my head.

The back side of the HMD screen, the side pointing toward others, is translucent, so you see a vague image of the outside world beyond the screen. This is distracting at best, and makes the screen completely invisible in bright sunlight. Sitting near the picture window of the Starbucks in Sunnyvale, I had to keep turning my head toward a dark wall to see the screen.

A Xybernaut spokesman told me the company is aware of the HMD's limitations, and is already working on a new design. It's no easy task, since the HMD must accommodate all sizes and shapes of heads, as well as fitting over eyeglasses. The optical pointing device, in contrast, isn't hard to master; you slide your thumb around the plastic surface to move the cursor on screen, and click the surface to enter a command -- just like clicking a mouse.

But there's no keyboard, so you have to enter words and numbers by pecking them out with a virtual keyboard that appears in the lower right corner of the screen. Typing anything more than a short Web address or a one-sentence electronicmail message is torture.

Nor does $1,499 buy much computing horsepower.

The Poma runs Windows CE, the slimmed-down and dumbed-down version of Windows found in PocketPC personal digital assistants. PocketPCs cost from $300 to $600, making those limitations justifiable.

But the Poma is too expensive to accept the lame CE version of Internet Explorer, which won't properly display many Web pages, or the equally lame CE version of Windows Media Player, which won't work with many online audio and video sources. The Poma's 128-megahertz processor, while reasonably fast for a PDA, is still too slow for many Web tasks; scrolling down through Web pages was jerky and the wait for big pages to display was interminable.

In short, I can't recommend that anyone -- even the most affluent alpha geeks -- submit themselves to a Poma pummeling. If you want to persist against my advice, be aware the Poma is only available directly from Xybernaut's Web site. The big Japanese electronics company Hitachi is also selling a version of the Poma in Asia as the WIA, an abbreviation for Wearable Internet Appliance.

Despite my griping, I don't regret having the opportunity to try out the Poma.

As the Internet and other forms of electronic communication become more ingrained in everyday existence, it makes sense to develop wearable devices that provide online access without blocking us from other tasks.

Better-designed HMDs might be the best way to plug into this connected world, perhaps coupled with reliable speech recognition software to take the place of clumsy on-screen keyboards.

As the Borg would say, ''You will be assimilated.''

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