November 30, 1999 10:50 AM PST

IBM Japan testing a "wearable" computer

IBM Japan is testing a "wearable" computer that is expected to be sold next year as it tries to redefine personal computing.

The walkman-like wearable PC is one of a number of initiatives intended to move IBM beyond the traditional personal computer to devices that are designed for the Internet. The company is also expected to supply a "countertop" Net device to telecommunications companies later this year or early next year and make some product moves in the wireless device segment.

The wearable computer, now being tested at customer sites in Japan, was co-developed with Olympus, which took part in the development of the face-mounted display, according to the two companies.

Interestingly, the device is not intended as a "companion" device like some handheld Windows CE-based computers marketed to date, but, despite its size, as a functional Windows 98-based stand-alone computer.

One of the applications cited by IBM Japan is checking email while on the road. In the United States, IBM has already begun teaser ads on TV, trying to show the promise of its Internet potential. Though somewhat vague and not mentioning the wearable computer specifically, one ad shows a person outdoors using voice commands to scroll through stock information with an eye-mounted screen.

Despite the commercial, IBM has not made a corresponding announcement in the United States yet about the latest version of the device. This is not unusual, however. The company typically markets tiny portable devices first in Japan; it then, if practical, brings them to the U.S. market. For example, Big Blue sold ultrasmall notebook computers in Japan for years before it started selling them in the U.S. this year.

The Lilliputian computer comes with features similar to those found on lightweight notebook computers including a Pentium MMX processor, a keyboard connector, 64MB of memory, audio, a Universal Serial Bus connection and a graphics chip from NeoMagic. It runs the Windows 95 or 98 operating systems.

It's the device's tiny components which set it apart, though. IBM will employ its matchbook-size 340MB micro-drive and a tiny screen which can generate standard PC display resolutions. The effect of the screen, which sits in front of one eye, is similar to viewing a 10-inch screen from about a foot away, IBM said.

IBM is also expected to make versions that are voice-activated--that is, do not require a keyboard or mouse for some operations--based on IBM's ViaVoice speech recognition which the company has been selling for use on PCs for a number of years now.

"I don't know about composing the great American novel while driving down Route 66, but it has some niche applications," said Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corporation. Kay thinks it can be used for applications such as stock clerks who need their hands free while they feed information to computers. People on the go who need to get time-critical email and stock market tracking are also possible users, he said. "If any company can, IBM can do the tour de force in technology here," Kay added.

Compared to an earlier prototype, improvements include better battery life--between two and three hours compared to about 1.5 hours before--and an improved screen capable of supporting about 1.4 million colors at a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. The earlier unit had a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels in black and white only.

The commercialized product will also come with a "dock" which contains various PC-style connectors and a PC Card slot for add-on devices.

 

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