Bell Canada techies slip into something more comfortable

Maybe WKRP’s Johnny Fever was right – maybe there are phone cops.

Consider Bell Canada, IBM Canada Ltd. and Xybernaut Corp. They teamed up to launch the first large-scale market trial of wearable computers – Ma Bell has outfitted an elite group of field service technicians with the Mobile Assistant IV (MA-IV).

The MA-IV is a fully wireless computing and communications device that is designed to connect the user to the Internet and provide a wireless voice connection. The device can be configured in different ways, including as a vest or belt, and is equipped with a headset or a flat-panel touch display screen for projecting and viewing images.

IBM Canada’s George Tatomyr, a strategic business development executive with the portable solutions group in Toronto, said the market trial is aimed at demonstrating the continuing migration of the PC from an enterprise environment to a mobile environment.

“It’s a means of justifying this wearable technology. We’re expecting to conduct a post trial early next year,” Tatomyr told ComputerWorld Canada. “People need to move around and with this wireless technology…they’re still able to work with the same applications that they have on a PC.”

Greater Toronto residents may catch a glimpse into the future of both technology and fashion, as Bell Canada’s technicians test the MA-IV in all weather and work conditions. The trial began in early October with a total of 19 Bell technicians using the MA-IV, and it will run until the end of 2000. Currently, most Bell techies use IBM ThinkPad laptops to access data remotely.

“IBM has been looking at the wearable PC for years and we’ve been demonstrating that the technology is reliable,” Tatomyr continued. “It’s a miniaturized PC that you can wear. We hope to deploy MA-X as the project moves forward.”

The wearable PC trial is the culmination of the collaborative work between Bell, IBM and Xybernaut to design, develop and manufacture the computer portion of Xybernaut’s next generation of wearable systems.

“We’re running the trial into December to get a bit of cold weather and to see how it performs,” said Brad Chittey, a regional manager with the Mobile Communications Services for Bell Canada in Toronto. “Once we’re able to validate the business value of the product we’ll look at our other families and our counterparts in Eastern Ontario and Quebec.”

For its part, Xybernaut provides the physical unit. The MA-IV runs all major operating systems on Intel x86 architecture, such as Windows or Linux. It weighs about 1.5lbs. and boasts a 233MHz MMX Pentium processor, 160MB RAM, 8GB hard drive, Lithium-ion battery, two PCMCIA card bus slots, and multiple I/O ports for connecting peripherals and power cables. The full-colour touch screen flat panel display can be wrist or belt-mounted, and has a six- to eight-inch viewable diagonal display. The head-mounted gear features a microphone, earpiece speaker and a display unit, which projects an image onto a reflector that displays the image to the eye. It measures 1.1-inches diagonally and displays a VGA colour 640 by 480 resolution.

IBM has been toying with the portable computers for a fair amount of time. Last June, during the PC Expo trade show in New York City, Big Blue unveiled a wearable PC and the IBM WatchPad – a watch that is capable of synchronizing data and images with a portable computer or PC via wireless connections. Unlike the wearable PC, the WatchPad is still in the prototype phase and it is not close to reaching the market.

“The WatchPad is not a fully-functional PC,” Tatomyr remarked. “Those are two different classes of wearable products.”

Big Blue has also developed a wireless handheld device for airline check in. About the size of a deck of cards, the handheld marries three different technologies: an IBM badge computer, an AiroNet IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN card and a RF reader.

“These applications are still in the test phase, it seems only the visionaries are looking at it right now but cybersmart computing is definitely the way of the future,” commented Kevin Restivo, an analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto. “The biggest asset to these devices is the practicality test as developers and researchers try to bring the product to the workplace