Once you get the gear on, you do look a bit like a nerdy Robocop.
It has a tiny video-screen eyepiece like the one worn by the futuristic movie cop, a slender microphone and a silver utility belt, all signals that the Mobile Assistant is definitely not your ordinary piece of computer hardware.
But tiny Fairfax-based Computer Products & Services Inc. is betting millions of dollars that its "wearable," voice-controlled computer will find a place in the fast-growing portable computing market. It's a risky proposition -- the machines cost $10,000 to $17,000 -- but CPSI argues that customers think the price is right for an unusual capability -- look-ma-no-hands computing.
Consider a repair technician at an airline fixing a complex electrical system. Typically, the worker must refer to large stacks of manuals for guidance, something not easily done in a cramped working situation. With the wearable computer, a worker would give voice commands to get troves of digitalized information, see it on the eyepiece, while continuing with hands-on repairs.
While laptops have appealed mainly to white-collar workers, the Mobile Assistant is aimed primarily at blue-collar ones -- maintenance technicians, police, firefighters -- people who need masses of information but also uninterrupted use of their hands.
"I think a lot of people are convinced that the new paradigm is true portability," said CPSI chief executive Ed Newman, a former Xerox Corp. executive. "The future is about equal opportunity computing that anyone can use anywhere."
The company pursues this future in dull-looking offices in a Fairfax office park, off Route 66. Formed in 1990 as a spin-off from an information services consulting firm he co-founded in 1983 after he left Xerox, Newman and two others patented the device last year after six years of development.
Much of the income the 26-employee company earns from consulting is being sunk into the Mobile Assistant, which has yet to sell in more than two's and three's for evaluation and testing. Other money, he said, comes from himself, employees and other individual private investors.
The idea was born from the consulting business, which had federal contracts moving a lot of paper-based material to electronic storage.
The basic technology in the device is much like what is found inside a desktop computer.
On the user's belt is an IBM-compatible computer using a 486 microprocessor and a 540-megabyte hard drive, 16 megabytes of random access memory, a small mouse and voice recognition software. Weighing about three pounds, it can run several hours on a lithium ion battery. It can run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software, as well as DOS and Unix programs.
Rockwell International Corp. manufactures the computer units; Kopin Corp., the headgear; Sony Corp., the batteries CPSI coordinates it all as well as the software applications for it.
Although the Mobile Assistant is bulky, it is relatively easy to use. When the headset is on, a reporter could easily see around the small video screen as well as read what is on it. Resolution on the tiny monitor is surprisingly good and can be switched to either eye. But the voice commands on the unit tested were not quick unless spoken with crystal clarity. But when they were recognized, they were executed quickly. In other words, no mumbling.
The first units were targeted at the straight-talking military -- today the army is testing a few units to see if they help technicians fix Apache helicopters. Other more recent customers are power companies, airlines and other maintenance-oriented businesses.
But at $10,000 to $17,000 apiece, Newman admits that widespread distribution is several years away at best, as the cost and weight go down and the computing might of the device goes up. "The next versions will be one-third less expensive, one-third less heavy and twice as powerful," he predicted, saying he hoped then to sell tens of thousands of units.
Portable computing analysts are mixed on this possibility.
"If it can further give the user the opportunity to take it wherever he wants to go, then it has a definite market," said Bill Karow, senior analyst at Workgroup Strategies Inc., a research firm in Portsmouth, N.H.
But John Robb of Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. thinks a device such as the Mobile Assistant has a limited market. It mostly could be an upgrade of less versatile devices being used by delivery companies such Federal Express, he said.
"I think it is super-small niche . . . The question is how much information is needed in the field, where the key issue is ability to input, communications and connection to a bigger computer network at headquarters."
Newman said CPSI's product answers those needs with the ability to transmit material back and forth using modems, cellular phones and even video link-ups. The unit also comes with a wrist-attachable typing terminal and small video screen.
"Anything a notebook computer can do, we can," he said. "What we really want to do is become the laptop killers." IN PROFILE CPSI * Name: Computer Products & Services Inc. * Location: Fairfax. * Established: 1990. * Business: Makes the "Mobile Assistant," a wearable computer. * Cost: $10,000 to $17,000. * Primary users: Police, firefighters, auto mechanics. CAPTION: Dorsey McGlone wears a "Mobile Assistant" from CPSI of Fairfax.