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Ready to Wear

Long the stuff of science fiction, body-worn computers are making their way into the workplace.

Imagine, if you will, this scene from the future. A doctor — an anesthesiologist to be precise — enters the step-down unit of a university hospital to check on the recovery of a patient who underwent heart surgery 48 hours earlier. While noting the pattern registering on the EKG, the physician checks a screen. The numbers on the LCD (liquid crystal display) indicate that the person may be in some pain. A glance through the doctor’s eyeglasses reveals that the patient’s blood pressure is running dangerously high.

The anesthesiologist hurriedly leaves the room. A malpractice suit in the making? Hardly. Turns out, the hypertension sufferer the doctor was monitoring was in a room way down the hall. And this isn’t the future. It’s November 2004 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Welcome to the world of wearable computers. Once relegated to the domains of Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry, on-body computers are steadily, inexorably gaining mainstream acceptance. At Vanderbilt Medical Center, body-worn computers (including eyewear that doubles as monitors) enable doctors to do the impossible. “You don’t have to be in the room to see the physiologic machines now,” says Dr. Leland Lancaster Jr., an assistant in Vanderbilt’s Department of Anesthesiology. “Instead of having to wait five minutes for a page to come through and then picking up the phone, or trying to run from room to room, everything is right there for us to see.”

Business users, too, are beginning to see real use for the technology. Telecommunications company Bell Canada equips some 300 field-service technicians with ruggedized, on-body computers that — unlike laptops — can go with workers up utility poles. Likewise, mechanics at Memphis-based Federal Express carry on-body computers, entering maintenance notes into a database so that parts runners can populate repair carts with needed pieces. And Detroit- and Minneapolis-based ground personnel for Northwest Airlines now tote wearable computers, along with bar-code wands and body-worn printers, to process boarding passes for passengers standing in line.

In fact, wearable computers are starting to become a more familiar sight to consumers. McDonald’s Corp., the largest fast-food seller in the world, deploys wearable computers as point-of-sale terminals at some drive-in windows. Instead of standing in front of squawk boxes and cash registers, employees stand curbside and talk to patrons directly. “The speed of order-taking actually goes up; the quality of the orders goes up,” says Ed McConaghay, vice president of wireless mobile computing solutions provider InfoLogix. “You get what you ordered more often, and customers really like the interaction.”

As advances are made in miniaturization and wireless technology, expect to see an even greater range of products. Scientists believe powerful microprocessors will one day be embedded into everyday objects, things like rings and bracelets and key chains. That future is not far off, either: this year, Fairfax, Va.-based manufacturer Xybernaut Corp. won a patent for a computer that fits into a shirt collar.

Beats a Shoe Phone

Initially, manufacturers of wearable computers depended on the U.S. military for much of their revenues (shipments on body-worn computers will top $560 million by 2006, predicts tech consultancy Venture Development Corp.). And in the ongoing war on terror, branches of the armed services and government agencies remain the primary buyers of on-body computers. Says Tom Steffens, principal technical director for homeland security at Fairfax, Va.-based Anteon, an IT company that provides advanced engineering services to government clients: “If [border-control agents] have a small wearable and a biometric ID device that has a camera and a fingerprint, they could refer back to a database that’s connected to law enforcement.”

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