- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

The once-fictional vision of Dick Tracy's wearable computers has given way to reality for the military.

The Army is using wearable computers daily at repair depots nationwide. The devices allow users to get untethered from desks, crawl under a plane and have all their technical manuals online.

"They can crawl in and around their systems, like a helicopter, tank or a truck, and they don't need to carry anything around. Everything is preloaded and strapped onto their body," said Jay Koerner at the Army Communications Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

But the Pentagon has bigger plans with its Land Warrior experiment.

Over the next decade, soldiers will be able to fight in combat with satellite imagery of the battlefield, ballistic-accuracy calculations and instant communications a click away on the computers embedded in their uniforms.

With a Global Positioning System unit, thermal-weapon sights and other gadgets, a soldier can immediately identify friends and enemies and see where his shots will hit.

"He's a totally 100 percent integrated system," said Maj. Brian Cummings, a system manager with the Land Warrior program at Fort Benning, Ga. "That computer is basically controlling and managing all the subsystems he's wearing."

The Land Warrior experiment plans to field-test wearable computers by 2003 and outfit all soldiers by 2008. The Army has spent nearly $400 million over the past five years developing the program.

Wearables are likely headed for space, as well. NASA researchers are testing ways to fit the devices into Mars space suits, and the computers will be used for a mock Mars mission this year.

NASA and the SETI Institute which is dedicated to the search for extraterrestrials will test space gear on Devon Island in northern Canada. The frigid site is the world's largest uninhabited island and represents some of the extreme conditions on Mars.

"Wearable computers may be the future not only for Mars expeditions, but for many future space missions," said Pascal Lee, project scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Major companies like General Electric, Northwest Airlines and Ford Motor Co. also are experimenting with the devices. Two major contractors, Xybernaut of Fairfax, and Via of Burnsville, Minn., are competing to expand the government's use.

With Xybernaut's machines, the computer's processor, hard drive and battery attach to a belt around the user's waist. A keyboard straps to the wrist and a headset includes the speakers, a display positioned over the user's eye and a small video camera to let other people see what the user sees.

The latest wearables are more durable and more mobile than laptop computers.

One application the Navy is considering would enable a technician wearing a wireless, headmounted camera to send an image to a remote expert who could "literally walk you through whatever the repair may be," Xybernaut Senior Vice President John Moynihan said.

"A notebook is not a mobile computer, it's a stationary computer that's easy to move," Mr. Moynihan said, adding that the Xybernaut device can withstand a three-foot drop and is water-resistant. "It's not designed to be dunked, but it can certainly withstand exposure to the elements," he said.

Packed with the same computing power as some laptops, wearables are still too expensive for average consumers. A top-of-the-line model could run about $10,000.


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