TCS Daily

Killer Fashion

By James Pinkerton - March 22, 2002 12:00 AM

CHICAGO - Any Comdex show is always a feast for geeks. The latest show, held in the Windy City earlier this month, was much smaller than the Las Vegas cybercopia. But in keeping with the changing times since September 11, many of the technotreats were dual-use-ready, that is, usable for fun or for fighting. Indeed, it was possible to survey the scene at the McCormick Place Convention Center and see a fusion of form and function, of machines that could be converted from peace to war and back to peace again.

The state-of-the-art geek carries around two or even three boxes-a cell phone, a personal digital assistant for schedules, notes, and games, and perhaps also a Blackberry. While it may seem cool, at least for a time, to be jangling and dangling so much hardware, eventually some sort of convergence will come. I had always assumed that the cell phone would "eat" the other functions, but after seeing the debut of the Blackberry 5810, which packs a phone and web browser into the same 4.7-ounce chassis, I'm not so sure. That is, in the Darwinian world of machine-eats-machine, maybe the Blackberry has mutated itself into evolutionary advantage-at least for now.

But if cell phones, PDA's, and the Blackberry each represent a distinct path of development and deployment, a fourth kid is about to appear on the block: the wearable computer. The leader in this field is Xybernaut, based in Fairfax, Virginia. The company was founded in 1990 on the premise that if workers were going to be mobile, then their workplace, or at least their workstation, should move with them.

It's the sort of vision that could create an entire industry where once none existed. After all, in 1975, Microsoft was founded on the idea that software could and should be the most valuable element of a computer. This may seem like a commonplace now, but it was a radical thought a quarter-century ago, in the era of impersonal terminals in basement computer labs.

Xybernaut's new new thing is Poma-portable multimedia appliance-which brings together wearable computing and connectivity. Poma has a headmount display, a one-inch 640 x 480 VGA viewing screen, weighing less than three ounces, which sits just in front of the eye. An Hitachi CPU and a pointing device complete the get-up.

I tried Poma at Comdex. It takes some getting used to, but the display graphics are fine-vivid enough to see and even to read, yet transparent enough to see through to avoid objects as I walked around.

Xybernaut was designed mostly with the civilian market in mind; 137 million workers around the world are mobile, according to Gartner Research. And even workers in fixed locations would surely see the advantage of working with both hands free. But another civilian use is for children with disabilities. "Xybernaut helps kids with physical disabilities, but it also seems to help autistic children, too, because they learn in their own way at their own pace," observed CEO Steve Newman in an interview. Indeed, the company has donated its machines to public schools in Virginia and Ohio.

But whether or not wearable computers make the transition from niche-market-filling to mainstream acceptance depends on subtler issues of taste and appearance, as well as ergonomics and applicability. Put simply, will wearable computers ever seem to be OK in public? Will people wearing them look, or feel, less than human? Men have always seemed to like wearing tools on their belts, but will 'real men" want to walk around with gizmos on their heads? And what about women? They have proven, since time immemorial, that they are willing to carry just about anything in purses, but what about in front of their faces?

Some international indicators suggest hope for Poma. A headline from a February 25 Reuters story said it all: "In Tokyo, Street Fashion Goes High-Tech." The piece describes the work of Japanese designer Michie Sone, who created a wearable-computer jacket in collaboration with the electronics group Pioneer Corporation: "Fusing high-tech accessories with clothing is seen as an inevitable step in Japan's fast-moving fashion industry."

OK, that's Japan. Some of its gadgetmanias caught on in the U.S., such as the Walkman and designer cell phones, but others, such as the Tamaguchi toy egg, did not.

But if there's no way to know what will leap the cultural divide between Orient and Occident, it's a safe bet that those devices that meet some utilitarian need are more likely to be accepted. And one such utility is survival.

When they were first introduced, wristwatches were seen as feminine; manly men carried pocket watches. But World War One changed that; in wartime, there was no time to waste fumbling around with a fob. So wristwatches became standard in the military, and that battlefront norm became a fashion form after 1918.

Such might be the case again today. Anyone paying attention since September 11 has gotten used to pictures of American soldiers wearing night vision goggles on their helmets-and frequently, also, hands-free microphones. The Pentagon didn't start out trying to make a fashion statement, to be sure; the idea of every military man and woman connected is a key aspect of the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs" over the last decade.

One of the leading RMA-ers is Admiral Bill Owens (USN-Ret.), author of Lifting the Fog of War, published two years ago. Owens described his vision of "embedded information warfare capability," in which everyone in the military is networked: "All deployable combat units, whether tailored for ground, naval, or air operations, would be organized with a dedicated information warfare capability linking its commanders, weapons, sensors, and command-and-control systems."

The latest military acronym for what was once called C3-command, control, and communications-has evolved into something much more complex: C4ISR-command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Which is to say, the battlefield of the future is getting complicated. What's the best way to keep everyone in the military connected? What's the technology that will be both effective and embraced, not just in a lab or a testing facility somewhere, but by real-world, real-war fighting men and women? Is hand-held the end of the road, or just a way station to wearable? And what comes after that? And as in the past, will what works for the military be what looks good for civilians?

I'll take up those questions next week.

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