Excuse Me, Is That a Monitor on Your Head?

You may wear a pager or a cell phone on your belt. And if you're a genuine gadget freak, you might even wear one of those oh-so-stylish Leatherman multi-purpose tools in its own holster. But are you ready to wear a computer, complete with a head-mounted display?

Wearable computers have been around for many years, and have even found acceptance in industrial, medical, and military applications, but a couple factors have kept them from wider use. One is cost, with typical systems starting at thousands of dollars above notebook PCs. And then there's the geeky-nerd image.

Still, wearable technology is forging ahead. And to help push it along, Xybernaut, a leading maker of high-powered commercial wearables, has announced a joint agreement with Microvision, a maker of a laser-based head-mounted virtual display. Xybernaut will sell a version of its Mobile Assistant IV with Microvision's display. Although units are in beta now, commercial availability isn't expected until late this year or early next.

At this point, pricing is unclear. A Xybernaut representative said only that the Mobile Assistant with the Microvision display will be "very high end." (Current models sell in the $5000-$7000 range.) And a Microvision spokesperson refused to comment on the cost of their current displays, which are custom-built for many high-end applications. One of the displays is used during neurosurgery, allowing a surgeon to view anatomical images and the patient's data without turning away from the surgical field.

Microvision's "augmented reality" displays use a very low power laser to "paint" a full-color high-resolution image directly onto the retina of a user's eye. The end result, according to the company, is a virtual image of a computer screen that appears to float several feet in front of you, and doesn't block your vision.

Although virtual-image screens that mount in front of the eye have been available for the last decade, they block the user's view, are usually monochrome only, and are low-resolution.

Although the thought of pointing a laser into your eye may give some users pause, Microvision says it's the infrared frequencies of commercial lasers that can damage the eye, and the company's displays use only visible light lasers. In addition, the laser intensity is extremely low. Microvision's displays use higher-intensity lasers are in military applications, but incorporate additional fail-safe safety features.

Advances like the new Microvision display will continue to push wearable computers into more sophisticated applications, although wider consumer acceptance seems a long way away, even as prices eventually begin to fall. Advances in high-quality head-mounted displays, especially smaller units that can mount on eyeglasses, will also eventually make wearable PCs less obvious and intrusive. In the meantime, only a stalwart group of commercial users and affluent early adopters seem willing to look like refugees from a Star Trek audition.

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Stan Miastkowski

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