Wearable Computers for the Working Class

By LISA GUERNSEY - New York Times

December 14, 2000

IT was a damp, chilly and overcast day in Toronto, but Chris
Holm-Laursen, a field technician for Bell Canada who spends
most of his time outdoors, barely felt the cold. His Ontario
upbringing probably had something to do with his immunity,
but Mr. Holm-Laursen also benefited from an unexpected heat
source: He had a small but powerful computer nestled in a
pocket on his orange mesh vest.

"In the winter, it's a bonus," he said, smiling as he put
his right hand against the machine.

The computer was not the only gadget attached to Mr.
Holm-Laursen's body on that November day. A keyboard was
stuck, via Velcro, to the upper left side of his vest. A
flat-panel display screen with a thin gray stylus hung just
above his left hip. A cell phone was attached to his vest,
too, and was wired to the computer. A battery, the size of a
thin brick, sat against his back. All together, he was
carrying around an extra three or four pounds.

For two and a half months, these devices have been part of
Mr. Holm-Laursen's uniform, allowing him access to work
orders and repair manuals everywhere he goes. As part of a
pilot project, 18 other technicians at Bell Canada have also
been outfitted. They have been transformed into what Brad
Chitty, a manager for Bell Canada's mobile-communication
services, calls the company's "virtual nodes," walking
examples of how productivity can improve when workers
actually wear the computerized tools they need to do the

These technicians may also be some of the first examples of
a demographic shift in who has the latest and greatest
Internet technology. For the past half-decade, the most
wired people have been white-collar professionals sitting at

But now that the focus of marketing and computer
manufacturing has shifted to the wireless arena, the cubicle
clientele are taking a back seat to workers who are the most
mobile. Anyone who has returned a rental car recently has
probably seen a sign of the shift: employees in the parking
lots are often carrying hand- held computers and printers
that interact wirelessly with the company's main computer
systems. Even bicycle couriers with multiple cell phones
attached to their bodies are apt to be more aware of the
latest wireless gadgets than many office workers.

Wearable computers are a big step beyond cell phones and
other hand-held devices. Equipped with voice- recognition
software and processing power equal to that of desktop
computers, wearable computers enable workers to send and
retrieve detailed information while keeping their hands free
for other tasks. Telecommunications technicians, medical
professionals, aircraft mechanics, factory inspectors and
contractors are now using and testing these "wearables."

Their experiences, developers say, will shape the
development of the ultramobile devices, not just for future
industrial needs but also for consumers, a population that
companies are eyeing longingly.

"We're very bullish on the devices," said Peter Hortensius,
a vice president in the personal systems group at
International Business Machines, which is creating many of
the computing components for wearables.

The Bell Canada program is one of dozens of pilot projects
in progress to test how much the devices improve
productivity - and to shake out the kinks.

Take, for example, head-mounted displays, the miniature
display screens that are designed to sit right in front of a
wearer's eye so that information can be viewed while the
person is looking straight ahead. When people talk about
wearables, those head-mounted displays are what many of them
envision. But some Bell Canada technicians who tried them
said they were more comfortable with flat-panel screens that
hook onto belts or vests.

"We do a lot of climbing, or going through forests with
branches hanging down," Mr. Holm-Laursen said. "The way the
headset sat, it stuck out and got in the way." Mr. Chitty
said that technicians who work in one place - like cable
specialists - did not have as many problems with the head-
mounted displays.

There is also the question of how workers will react to
being extensions of the company's computer system,
especially when the wearables are equipped with Global
Positioning System devices that can provide accounts of
where they are while on the job.

But on that nippy afternoon in Toronto, Mr. Holm-Laursen
sounded convinced that the advantages of his wearable
computer far outweighed the drawbacks.

He had just arrived in a quiet old neighborhood in north
Toronto to repair a residential phone line. The assignment
had come to him a few minutes earlier on his wearable
computer, which was connected through his cell phone to Bell
Canada's intranet. If he had not been wearing his computer,
he said, he would have used a wireless laptop in his truck
to pull up the work order, copying the most vital
information - like the customer's phone number - onto a slip
of paper.

"I would have written down only the vital things, not
everything," Mr. Holm-Laursen said as he tapped his fingers
on the hip-level display panel to double-check the address.
For example, he continued, a service technician might arrive
at a job site only to discover that a piece of not-so-vital
information was required to solve the problem. He would then
have to return to his truck.

"That is where this comes in handy," he said, "when you are
up top of a pole and you don't want to climb back down."

Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Holm-Laursen had traced the
source of the disconnected line to a grayish-green utility
box that stood shoulder high on a nearby sidestreet. He
unlocked the doors, displaying a cascade of thin blue and
yellow wires. He quickly diagnosed the problem. "See that
blue wire," he said, pointing. "It's not connected."

To double-check, he tapped on his chest keyboard and looked
at the screen, which displayed a series of numbers telling
him which blue wire corresponded to the customer's line. He
did this with his right hand, while using his left hand to
hold on to the flat-panel screen - a reflex that he couldn't
seem to help. "I don't even need to hold it," he said,
suddenly removing his hand when asked about the display. It
hung open at a 90- degree angle without his help, attached
to his vest by cloth hinges that folded neatly away when the
screen's lid was closed.

His job that afternoon could have been done without
high-tech gadgets, but sometimes assignments are not always
so straightforward. Two months earlier, he said, he found
himself standing in front of a similar green utility box in
response to a call for repair. The box was full of
disconnected lines, possibly the result of vandalism. Four
other technicians had arrived there, too, but Mr.
Holm-Laursen was the only one who was wearing his computer.

Each time the other technicians finished a job, they would
walk back to their trucks, which were often parked several
blocks away because of parking-space shortages, and boot up
their laptop computers to see where the next work order
would take them. Usually it took them right back to the same
green box. Mr. Holm-Laursen, meanwhile, stayed put and
completed one assignment after another while he stood there.

"They were just amazed," he said. "I was able to complete
five jobs in less than two hours."

So far, only a few companies manufacture and sell wearables
for mobile workers. The system being tested by Bell Canada,
for example, was developed by Xybernaut, a company in
Fairfax, Va., that holds or has applied for 532 patents on
the technology. Xybernaut estimates that about 1,000 of its
units are in use around the world, as part of pilot programs
in companies like Federal Express and G. E. Power.

Another company, called ViA, which is based in Minneapolis,
also sells wearable computers, most of which are worn on a
belt and do not include a head-mounted display. A few
thousand of their units are now in use in dozens of
companies, including Northwest Airlines and General

As part of Bell Canada's project, Mr. Chitty is collecting
data from his technicians to see how much faster and more
inexpensively employees can do their work. He declined to
release specific numbers, saying that most of it was
proprietary and had not yet been fully tabulated, but he
said that the time for several tasks had been cut by at
least half. "I'm impressed," he said, adding that the
company was going forward with plans to equip most of its
technicians with wearables in the next few years.

In addition to the bulkiness of the head- mounted displays,
there have been a few other problems along the way, many of
which appear to have been solved. Some of the batteries, for
example, died after only a few hours, so Xybernaut supplied
the company with more reliable ones. (Now, Mr. Chitty said,
the batteries last for about four hours if the computer is
always on and up to two days if efforts are taken to
conserve power.)

Information displayed on the original flat- panel screens
was too hard to see in the glaring sunshine, so Xybernaut
provided several workers with screens designed to be easier
to read in daylight. And for Mr. Holm- Laursen, the units
were originally too awkward to wear on a belt, in part
because he had to wear two other belts, one for climbing and
one for tools. So Bell Canada and Xybernaut set him up with
a vest.

This month, Bell Canada is embarking on a cold-weather test
to see how the devices work when temperatures drop below
freezing. Mr. Holm-Laursen is wondering about at least one
potential problem: How will technicians wearing vests be
able to get to the devices when they are wearing their
cold-weather parkas? And with thick gloves on, he said,
workers must resort to using the stylus, since it is
virtually impossible to finger-tap on the touch-screen
display. He is hoping that the vests will fit if worn
outside his coat - something he hasn't yet tested despite
Toronto's wintry weather.

Finding a comfortable head-mounted display is the next
challenge. Mr. Chitty has already tried several prototypes
that weigh about 75 percent less than the displays that were
being used. He is hoping that someday soon they will be
light enough to wear like sunglasses that can hang around a
person's neck when they are not in use.

Getting employees accustomed to the idea of wearing a
computer may, in fact, be a tougher task than fixing
technological problems. Mr. Holm-Laursen said he knew of
several co-workers who disparaged the wearables as not worth
the trouble. Many of them, he said, were older employees who
have also resisted having to learn to use a laptop.

Even Mr. Holm-Laursen is dismissive of the idea of having a
G.P.S. receiver built into the device - something that is
already on the mind of Renato J. Discenza, the company's
senior vice president for operations in Ontario. "We'll be
able to know where they are," Mr. Discenza said, referring
to technicians out in the field. "And then we can track --
not track, but dispatch them more effectively."

But Mr. Holm-Laursen uses the word "track" without
hesitation. "Do you want to be tracked?" he asked. "Do you
want someone to know where you are at all times? I don't."

At the same time, he did not sound terribly worried about
that prospect. "The union would never allow it," he said.

(Brian Payne, the national president of the Communications,
Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, said he was not
aware of any particular union discussions related to G.P.S.
and Bell Canada's employees. But he also said that the use
of monitoring devices is "a very real concern.")

As Mr. Holm-Laursen talked, he locked up the green utility
box and tucked his tools in his belt. The overcast sky was
becoming darker. Through the windows of neighborhood houses,
lights glowed a warm yellow. It was time for him to call it
a day.

He looked down at the phone on his vest and pulled up the
antenna. The wireless signal was extremely weak, so he
walked back to his truck, climbed in and tried logging in
from there. A green light flickered on the computer at his
hip as he tapped and typed away, filling in information
about the type of cable that was disconnected, the account
number for the customer and the cause of the problem. Then
he tucked away the stylus, turned off the computer, removed
his technology-laden vest and headed home.

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