He strolls around the hotel with a hard drive strapped on. A teensy color monitor juts out over one eye like a bicycle helmet mirror. Beneath the other eye is a thumbnail-size camera. A noodle-thin microphone drapes near his mouth. Oddly enough, he doesn't look that odd. You've seen it in the movies--the bionic people and robocops and half-human, half-machine cyborgs that render real life obsolete.
Why should you be surprised to see a man wearing a computer? After all, you're attached to all sorts of computers: wristwatches, Walkmen, Watchmen, Game Boys, beepers, phones, hearing aids, pacemakers, insulin pumps.
Somehow, though, this is different.
This is a convention of people who use and sell the Xybernaut, a bleeding-edge wearable computer created in Fairfax. This is your tomorrow. This could profoundly change the way you live, work, play, relax, even think. And, as sayeth the Borg on television: Resistance is futile.
Though the computer on the man's belt is cool and convenient, there is about it a clunkiness and a quaintness. As you watch him give voice commands to scroll through Web pages, you realize that you're seeing both the future and the past.
You will wear computers; they probably won't look this fashion-challenged.
Your appearance is nice today, Jake. How do you think I look?
A registered nurse in Dayton has been wearing a Xybernaut unit to work daily for almost a year. Ron Fannin, 39, is dyslexic and has been been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Using voice-recognition software, he is able to do his job--keep charts on patients, call up the Physician's Desk Reference, process his reports--without writing at all. Though other people are often intimidated by the way he looks in his get-up, Fannin says that "it levels the playing field for me."
At the Media Lab, the new-edge brain trust of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is much hubbub about wearables. The visionaries there believe that computers will eventually become invisible, hidden in clothing that monitors your health, in earrings that whisper translations to you, in finger rings that contain your identity and open locked doors, and--the ultimate example--in brain implants.
Deep within, something stirs. Imagining a whole computer melding seamlessly with a man is an eerie existential experience.
It's nifty, sure, and labor-saving and highly utilitarian. And it's only going to get smaller, cheaper, smarter and more personal. But how far will this mecho-mania go? How intertwined will we become with our beloved implements? At some point won't we be asking questions like: Where does my machine end and where do I begin? How much more memory can I buy for my own brain? And eventually and inevitably: Who, or what, am I?
Promise and opportunity also bring risks and unforeseen hazards.
"The trends after 2010-2015 will be ethically driven," predicts Edward G. Newman, president and CEO of Xybernaut.
"We are developing tools to help man overcome weaknesses and defects," he says. He envisions general-purpose computers that provide hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind, "representations of what a normal person would hear and see."
A computer could also help us be more sensitive, by detecting stress in others that is invisible to, for example, your average male. It could then suggest ways to repair damaged relationships.
I'm sorry, Annette, but love does mean having to say you're sorry.
But, Newman asks, "What are the consequences of failures, should they occur?"
If, for instance, a commercial airline pilot receives assistance from computers that are deeply integrated into his decision-making processes and suddenly there's a breakdown, who is at fault?
Like any super-salesman, Newman sees these problems as challenges--obstacles to overcome. He believes we are in the early morning of a brand-new age, an era in which wearable computers "will actually spark creativity and imagination that can only come from the human mind."
He's looking forward to "more breakthroughs" and a glorious world beyond.
Not everyone, of course, will use the smarter-than-thou gizmos for the greater good. "You'll always have your Darth Vaders versus your Luke Skywalkers," Newman says. "But that's the story of mankind. Right?"
Dick Tracy, Call Doctor
For all his concerns about the future, Newman doesn't have too much time for ethics-wrestling right now. He's in the middle of a booming industry.
Wearables are already among us.
General Motors service managers sport voice-activated computers that take information from you at Cadillac dealerships. United Parcel Service delivery people scan bar codes with special rings on their fingers. Attendants at rental agencies wear "line-busting" computers that clock cars in and print out receipts before the engine cools.
That's just the beginning. At the University of Rochester's Center for Future Health, researchers are fiddling with an explosion of products to perhaps enhance your quality of life:
* "Memory glasses" will automatically detect familiar patterns in the world around you to remind you of the name of the person you're firing, or that you have dropped peanut butter and jelly into your grocery basket but forgot the bread or that you just missed the exit ramp to your house.
* "Smart bandages," first-aid dressings that will quickly identify bacteria and determine which antibiotics should be used for treatment.
* A wristwatch sort of thing that keeps track of your pulse, body temperature and respiratory system. As a recovering surgery patient, you will wear this doodad to keep the docs apprised of your condition. At night you can hook up your watch to your "smart bed," which records other information while you snooze.
You're snoring again, Davey.
* A well-meaning device that, according to the Center for Future Health, will be "equipped with artificial-intelligence software that recognizes certain phrases and tones of voice and lets the speaker know, gently and unobtrusively, that his emotion level is rising, and suggests alternate phrases or actions."
At Georgia Tech, scientists are weaving "smart clothing" that incorporates all kinds of sensors and fiber-optic possibilities--socks that will warn wearers of foot problems or a shirt that assesses a bullet wound and signals info back to a triage center.
Wearables will not only be used to monitor our ailments. They'll also provide us with information (whispered in our ear perhaps) and entertainment and enhance our abilities.
Can we wear computers to help us jump higher? Run faster? Write better?
Eventually, predicts MIT architecture professor William J. Mitchell in his new book "e-topia," wearable computers and other smart things "will seem to have the intimacy of underwear."
And we will essentially be walking around in one vast computerized world.
Mitchell describes an office project at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the early 1990s. The setting was designed with wearables, hand-held devices and furniture that displayed information and allowed workers to interact with the displays. Participants wore wireless transponder pins so that computers could track their every move and interaction. "The inhabitants became, in effect, living cursors; information that they needed automatically followed them from place to place, and showed up on whatever display device happened to be convenient at the moment."
At Bill Gates's $60 million home in Seattle, visitors wear electronic badges that signal personal preferences to sensors hidden here and there--lights automatically dim, visual images appear, music swells or softens, the room's temperature rises or falls.
But wearing computers 24-7 might be a little cloying. Artificial-intelligence researchers have focused on features "that are smart and clever, along one dimension," observes the Media Lab's Rosalind Picard, author of "Affective Computing." But teaching machines "how not to annoy people is sometimes just as important as knowing how to help people."
Sorry if I was bit pushy, Jane.
There will be minor annoyances, says Ed Newman of Xybernaut. Using voice-activated software will require a whole new set of skills. "Dictation is a lost art," he says. And people will suffer from voice stress the way that typists contract repetitive stress.
But sooner than later you'll be wearing all the computing power you'll need, says Newman and his staff of Xybernaut zealots. Throw away your laptop, your Palm Pilot, your Global Positioning System, your wallet and your worries, he says. And try on a Xybernaut Mobile Assistant for size.
Sitting in a conference room on the fifth floor of a homely stone-and-glass office building in Fairfax, Newman is a compact, bright-eyed, reddish-haired go-getter who has morphed from CIA operative to Xerox systems manager to Beltway bandit to electro-entrepreneur. When he and techno-whiz Michael Jenkins, 36, were hired by the military in the late 1980s to digitize vast repair manuals at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, they noticed that a repairman using the manual had to leave his job, walk over to a desktop computer, enter information, receive further information, then return to his chore.
"The guy was wasting a lot of time," Jenkins says.
How keen would it be, they thought, if that same repairman could be strutting around, wearing the electronic repair manual with his hands free at the same time?
The two men formed the company that became Xybernaut in 1991 and began developing an "information appliance," a small blocky thing that looks like an eight-track tape player. They were way ahead of their time, or at least ahead of the laptop. The two men laugh when they recall the lean and early days.
In 1992, Jenkins says, he and his wife lived pretty much on her schoolteacher's salary. Jenkins did a little computer consulting at night. "At times it didn't look very good," he says.
Newman, 56, remembers being dang near broke and, on a business trip, checking into a fleabag Detroit motel in a rough part of town to save money. "There was still chalk on the floor where someone had been killed," he says. "Mike and I took turns sleeping. We had about $5 between us."
On the wall of the company's bustling waiting room hang 15 plaques commemorating key patents and trademarks. The first and most important to the company was the hands-free, user-supported portable computer patented on April 19, 1994. Today their product is called the Mobile Assistant and it's the latest in an evolutionary succession from mainframe to desktop to laptop to hand-held.
"Wearables," Newman says, "are ubiquitous, pervasive."
For the next two or three years, Xybernaut plans to focus on commercial markets. It's sold about 300 of the latest Mobile Assistant, for military and industrial applications. Other companies, such as Lucent and Mercedes-Benz, are involved in pilot tests.
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings are megacompetitors like IBM and British Telecom, which are developing their own versions of wearables.
Newman says the competition doesn't scare him. When wearables become a way of life, there'll be plenty of business to go around.
The Challenge of the Pencil
The world has a way to go before wearables become unavoidables.
People like Jim Bass have a lot of work to do.
"Who is the enemy?" he asks in a high, thin, almost comic voice. The Army researcher--a compact spark plug in blue golf shirt, khaki slacks and wire rim glasses--pauses briefly and grins.
Bass is a believer in wearables. On this day he's preaching to the converted, the folks who are already using ultra-portable Xybernaut computers to heal the sick, fix the broken, find the lost. He's speaking at the first-ever Xybernaut Users Group convention at the Fair Lakes Hyatt. In the windowless conference room there is a sense that tomorrow is today, the impossible is passe, the coming has come.
Prepare for the future.
"Who is our enemy?" Jim Bass asks the people in the room. He grins again. "The pencil." Because it's portable, reliable, simply maintained and astonishingly easy to use.
The Media Lab dates human augmentation from 1268, the earliest recorded mention of eyeglasses. The English scientist Robert Hooke foresaw in 1665 that "as Glasses have highly promoted our seeing, so 'tis not improbable, but that there may be found many mechanical inventions to improve our other senses of hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching."
In due course, computers were invented. According to a Media Lab timeline, the first wearable electronic computer--the size of a pack of cards--was created in 1961 by two guys who used it to break the bank at casinos by determining the speed of a roulette wheel.
Eventually, says Michael Hawley of the Media Lab, we will be wearing "an arrangement of technology that has the sensibility of a good Italian tailor." He says we will wear socks that monitor some personal things and jewelry that pays attention to others.
Utilizing artificial intelligence programs, these part-of-us computers may allow us to communicate with others in new and undiscovered ways.
In his book "When Things Start to Think," Neil Gershenfeld of the Media Lab writes that wearables may well be "a new step in our evolution as a species." He points out that molecules eventually learned how to work together to form cells, cells banded together to make animals, animals cooperated to build families and families joined one another to fashion communities.
"Moving computing into clothing opens a new era in how we interact with each other," Gershenfeld writes, and that is "the defining characteristic of what it means to be human."
Excuse me, Bill, don't you mean: Where do we want to go today?
CAPTION: Xybernaut technician Brian Carter puts on his best Borg imitation. At right, a mobile flat panel display.