Quain Tries the Gear

John Quain tests the idea of the wearable computer.

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I took a leap forward to experience what it will be like when PCs and people are indistinguishable.

Until we're networked from head to toe with integrated body computers seemingly anticipating our moods and desires even before we do, we'll have to settle for some of the intriguing devices that merely hint at what the future holds.

Today, that starts with voice recognition, which, among other things, lets you surf the Net by barking instructions at your PC. Conversay's Voice Surfer software worked reasonably well when I said "refresh" a page and "go back" to another site. Verbally directing it to specific sites, however, proved to be tedious. And if I didn't mute Voice Surfer when I got a phone call, the program cruised around the Net chaotically, trying desperately to keep up with my conversation.

Next, I tackled Nokia's 8390 cellphone, which accepts voice commands to auto-dial and change some of the phone's settings, such as the ringer mode. After storing only 15 verbal requests, the phone ran out of memory. e.Digital's MXP 100 voice-recognition MP3 player could handle many more commands, but it was hard of hearing at times. No matter how I pronounced "Brand New Day," Sting refused to sing it. I had to keep checking the device's screen to see what was wrong -- a dangerous maneuver on a treadmill. And my repeated shouts of "Brand New Day" drew stares from other gym members.

Leaving this primitive and somewhat frustrating gear behind, I took a leap forward to experience what it will be like when PCs and people are indistinguishable. The $1,499 Xybernaut Poma, the first wearable computer for consumers, consists of three components: a silver head band with a tiny monitor that flips down over one eye; a PDA-size computer; and a thumb-controlled optical mouse. To hide the system -- as if that were possible -- I fed the mouse cable down a sleeve and the monitor cable down the back of my jacket. Wired for action, I felt like James Bond. An illusion my wife shattered when she said, "You're not going outside like that, are you?"
Undaunted, I found the Poma's Windows CE 3.0 software and color monitor allowed me to read documents and play solitaire while wandering around streets and stores. Unfortunately, without a wireless modem, I couldn't surf the Net. The whole episode was disorienting. If I concentrated on what I was looking at in the monitor for too long, I got dizzy and even bumped into store displays.

My conclusion: The wearable computer is a fine idea, if you're sitting down.

Before rushing to judgment that all of today's versions of pervasive computing are wanting, I gave a vehicle-navigation system a shot. Using an Audiovox program that automatically knew where the car was, I entered my destination. The screen displayed directions and verbally told me when to turn. The course was right and the route was the shortest. Except I was dumped into the heart of some of the worst New York City traffic I've ever seen. Next time, I'll let my wife navigate.