Dressing Up Wireless

The next time you see a Bell Canada field technician up a pole pulling wires, don’t be surprised if the technician pauses, looks at a compact device on his vest, pokes at a screen with a finger or stylus and then carries on working.

When it comes to using wearable wireless technology for dispatch or to access data on the corporate network, Bell Canada field technicians are on top of a wave industry analysts predict will have a major impact on the business, industrial and consumer markets over the next 10 years.

In October 2000, 19 Bell Canada technicians started a field trial of the Mobile Assistant (MA) from Fairfax, Va.-based Xybernaut Corp. They used the wearable wireless devices, which they wore as vests or belts, in all kinds of weather and under various work conditions.

The Bell Canada technicians were, admittedly, used to working without wires – but not up poles or in vaults. Before the MA field tests, they used IBM ThinkPad laptops that they kept in their trucks for remote data access. Using MA computing devices equipped with either head-mounted or flat-panel display screens for viewing images, the technicians accessed dispatch and technical data while on the job.

In August, Bell Canada and Xybernaut announced the successful completion of what the companies billed as “the world’s first large-scale market trial of wearable computers.”

“Wearable PCs performed extremely well in a number of environments, saving us time on repair calls and resulting in better customer service,” says Brad Chitty, Bell Canada’s general manager, mobile communication services.

According to Chitty, wearable portability reduced the need to return to vehicles to boot up laptops and enter data, saving each technician more than 50 minutes per day in run-around time. The MA’s daylight readable screen contributed to a reduction in computing time and proved to be ideal for viewing plant schematic diagrams.

Constant access to portable information also eliminated the need for a great deal of paper information. And, since wearable, wireless PCs are in the same price range as laptops, the return on investment for Bell was almost immediate.

“To say that Bell Canada is extremely pleased with the results is an understatement. We had to literally beg trial participants to return the trial units,” Chitty said.

Bell Canada is now outfitting 300 field service technicians with the Mobile Assistant V. Over the next couple of years, Chitty expects up to 2,000 technicians to be equipped with wearable wireless devices. The units will eventually replace the laptops that are used in the field by approximately 10,000 Bell Canada technicians.

Wearing It Out

The Bell technicians are part of a trend that will see, by 2007, more than 60 per cent of the European Union and North American population aged 15 to 50 carrying or wearing a wireless computing and communications device for at least six hours a day. By 2010, more than 75 per cent will do so, according to Electronic Workplace: Application Futures; Technology Futures, a Gartner research report.

Currently, wireless wearable computing devices occupy a fairly niche market, according to Jackie Fenn, an advanced technology and applications analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. They tend to be used in airplane and automotive manufacturing and other sectors where technicians need to keep their hands free while accessing data.

However, as voice recognition and other data input methods improve and the cost of units moves south from the laptop range to the handheld range, an increasing number of BlackBerry, Palm and Pocket PC users will migrate to wireless wearable devices, she says.

She cites Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion’s BlackBerry as a device that closely resembles the future of wearable wireless. It’s a compact, wireless device that combines PDA and word processing functionality with always-on, two-way e-mail messaging. However, rather than accessing wearables using standard QWERTY keyboards, users will take advantage of voice recognition, gestures or touch-sensitive screens to send and receive information.

“During the next decade, a number of technologies will coalesce to drive the widespread availability of always-on, mobile computing and communications devices, or wireless interactive devices (WIDs),” the Gartner report says.

WIDs will evolve from PDAs, Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled telephones and other handheld computing technologies. The lightweight units will combine improved wireless access and user interface technologies (such as speech recognition and wearable displays). Features such as location sensing and built-in low-cost cameras will further enhance the range of WID applications, capabilities and services and will drive the market, Fenn says.

A Team Effort

Because wearables will resemble today’s handheld computers and smart phones in some aspects of form and functionality, there is an opportunity for companies in the handheld and mobile phone markets to capture market share. However, they are so focused on slugging it out in their increasingly competitive markets that other companies, engaged in strategic partnerships, may emerge to rule the wearable roost.

Since its founding in 1990, Xybernaut has pioneered research, development and commercialization of computer technology, hardware, and related software for wearable systems. Although its MA units will replace IBM portable computers at Bell Canada, Xybernaut is not challenging IBM’s relationship with Bell Canada.

In fact, the wearable PC trial was the culmination of collaborative work between Bell Canada, IBM Canada Ltd. and Xybernaut. IBM was contracted by Xybernaut to design, develop and manufacture the computer portion of the MA. Xybernaut also has relationships with companies like Hitachi and Texas Instruments.

The wearable computing industry has created some strange bedfellows. For instance, last August the European division of Levi Strauss and the Dutch electronics company Philips joined forces to create a new line of jackets with an embedded MP3 player and a mobile phone.

While wearable wireless will initially fulfil niche roles, the capabilities they offer “are fairly transformational,” Fenn says.

As with other wireless devices, information can be pushed to the user, but with wearables, users do not have to stop what they are doing to process the information. They can be in transit, up a telephone pole or kicking back on the beach and literally view a World Wide Web of information overlaid on a sub-optimal screen.

Consumers will be able to find restaurants, review daily specials and book reservations while on the go or working around the home or office.

Cashless mobile commerce will also become popular. Phoenix, Ariz.-based Hypercom Corporation and WearLogic Inc. in Wakefield, Mass., are developing leather pocket wallets for wireless payments at checkout lanes equipped with Hypercom terminals.

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