CORONADO, CALIF. — Xybernaut Corp. wants to involve designers of portable equipment in its wearable-personal-computer epiphany. A wearable computer, which consists of a head-mounted display and body-mounted hardware as small as a Walkman, will be on the market in two or three years, said Edward G. Newman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of the Fairfax, Va.-based company.
"It is not going to be a 10- or 20-year project," Newman told attendees at the Portable Design 2000 conference, held Jan. 25-27 in Coronado.
But challenges remain, and global computer makers are pursuing solutions.
Obstacles include issues of design, ease of use, infrastructure requirements, social adaptation and technical challenges such as battery life, thermal dissipation and man-machine interfaces.
"We can't have fans or openings," he said. "It has to operate in sand, ice [and] rain."
Newman had two associates model early systems, including a vest loaded with hospital-type medical apparatus and a first-generation wearable personal computer from IBM Corp.'s personal systems group.
IBM recently conducted user trials with second-generation wearable computers.
Xybernaut is negotiating with IBM on technology licensing, Newman said later in an interview.
By 2003, early adopters of wearable computers will create a worldwide market of $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion, with about one half of that total in the United States, Newman said, citing a projection from International Data Corp. of Framington, Mass.
Newman sees myriad commercial and military applications involving maintenance, inspection and monitoring.
Ford Motor Co. used Xybernaut's Mobile Assistant IV equipment at the recent International Auto Show in Detroit, broadcasting live video back to a Web site for a contest, he said.
Sony Corp.'s digital products subsidiary, Hokubu Tsushin and Shimadzu Corp. make elements of the Xybernaut unit in Japan.
Existing uses for the technology include inspection of civil structures, process control in making golf balls and processing chickens.
Newman sees potential for millions of workers in distribution, transportation, medicine, law enforcement and the military.
"The long-term market for education and entertainment has no limits," he said, and every user of today's 200 million cellular telephones is a target for a wearable computer.
Xybernaut's interest in wearable computing grew from a U.S. Army project that changed printed technical manuals to an electronic form, Newman said.
The Army's armament munitions and chemical command conducted the program a decade ago at a Rock Island, Ill., arsenal.
"Mechanics were walking back and forth to the technical library" for needed data during routine and final tests of equipment, Newman said. "We needed to be able to deliver information to the technicians."
Eventually, interactive electronic technical manuals were located closer to the work sites but lacked the advantages of a wearable computer.
Xybernaut reported a net loss of $13.2 million on sales of $2.1 million for the nine months ended Sept. 30.
The company completed an initial public offering of common stock in July 1996 and trades as a Nasdaq small-cap issue.