WASHINGTON — A mechanic crawls under an Army tank with a computer strapped to his belt and a keyboard on his wrist. A tiny camera clipped to a futuristic headset beams pictures back to colleagues, who whisper repair instructions through the headset speaker.
The once-fictional vision of Dick Tracy’s wearable computers has given way to reality at the Army’s Fort Monmouth in New Jersey and at other military repair depots nationwide where such devices are now in daily use.
Government officials impressed with their miniaturization and speed already are envisioning new uses that would take wearable computers to the battlefield — and beyond.
"Wearable computers may be the future not only for Mars expeditions, but for many future space missions," said Pascal Lee, project scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Packed with the same computing power as some laptops, wearables are still too expensive for average consumers. A top-of-the-line model could run about $10,000.
But businesses and the military are finding them a perfect fit.
Right now, wearables are mostly used for military repairs. They allow users to get untethered from desks, crawl under a plane and have all their technical manuals online.
"They can crawl in and around their systems, like a helicopter, tank or a truck, and they don’t need to carry anything around. Everything is pre-loaded and strapped onto their body," said Jay Koerner at the Army Communications Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth.
But the Pentagon has bigger plans with its Land Warrior experiment.
Over the next decade, soldiers will be able to fight in combat with satellite imagery of the battlefield, ballistic accuracy calculations and instant communications a click away on the computers embedded in their uniforms.
With a global positioning system, thermal weapon sights and other gadgets, a soldier can immediately identify friends and enemies and see where his shots will hit.
"He’s a totally 100 percent integrated system," said Maj. Brian Cummings, a system manager with the Land Warrior program at Fort Benning, Ga. "That computer is basically controlling and managing all the subsystems he’s wearing."
The Land Warrior experiment plans to field-test wearable computers by 2003 and outfit all soldiers by 2008. The Army has spent nearly $400 million over the past five years developing the program.
Major companies like General Electric, Northwest Airlines and Ford Motor Co. are also experimenting with the devices. Two major contractors, Xybernaut of Fairfax, Va., and Via of Burnsville, Minn., are competing to expand the government’s use.
With Xybernaut’s machines, the computer’s processor, hard drive and battery attach to a belt around the user’s waist. A keyboard straps to the wrist and a headset includes the speakers, a display positioned over the user’s eye and a small video camera to let other people see what the user sees.
One application the Navy is considering would enable a technician wearing a wireless, headmounted camera to send an image to a remote expert who could "literally walk you through whatever the repair may be," Xybernaut senior vice president John Moynihan said.
The latest wearables are more durable and more mobile than laptop computers.
"A notebook is not a mobile computer, it’s a stationary computer that’s easy to move," Moynihan said, adding that the Xybernaut device can withstand a three-foot drop and is water-resistant. "It’s not designed to be dunked, but it can certainly withstand exposure to the elements," he said.
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