Wearable headset computer uses head-tracking and voice commands for completely handsfree operation
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
On October 22, 2012, Motorola Solutions introduced the HC1 headset computer as the first in a new class of Motorola hands-free enterprise mobile computers that uses voice recognition, head gestures and video streaming to navigate applications that access and view electronic documents and schematics. Motorola went as far as describing the HC1 as the next evolution of mobile computing. The picture below shows a field worker wearing the device, and what she sees in the headmount computer display.
In essence, what Motorola Solutions is trying to do here is solve the problem of how to use a computer when your hands are not free. Consider the progression from desktop where you have enough space to work with a keyboard and mouse, to a laptop that you carry around but still type on, and to a tablet or handheld that you operate with your fingers. But what if you need to stand and use both hands on a job? That's where hands-free computing comes into play.
This is not the first time Motorola Solutions wrestled with this problem. In October of 2006, they introduced the WT4000 Series of wearable terminals (see here). And even before that, the company had a good decade of experience in wearable computers. In fact, when we began a wearable computing column in Pen Computing Magazine some 13 years ago (see here), we listed Symbol Technologies, now part of Motorola Solutions, one of the four major players in wearables. So why is a headset computer considered so exciting in 2012? Because the technology may finally be here to make the concept work.
In the past, the problem with wearable computers were that a) the computer itself was too large to be integrated into a headset and had to be worn elsewhere on the body, b) the head-mounted microdisplays had inadequate resolution, and c) there was no reliable way to interact with a wearable other than with one's hands, which sort of defeated the purpose. What makes the HC1 headset computer different is that Motorola Solutions believes it has solved those problems. Witness:
The computer is now part of the headset. So no more wires and connections to a CPU elsewhere on the body.
The display offers full 800 x 600 pixel SVGA resolution and is designed so it feels as if you were looking at a 15-inch notebook display. That's far more useful than older heads-up displays that usually offered just 320 x 240 QVGA.
The system uses a combination of head tracking, head gestures voice commands to navigate and operate the HC1.
And imaging and communications technology is now such that a headset system like the HC1 includes Bluetooth and WiFi, microSD card storage, and full 1080p video recording for documentation.
Now let's look at the technology involved.
The computer hardware is based on an 800MHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 3730 processor, a chip designed for use in smartphones and tablets. On the software side, the HC1 is based on Windows CE 6.0. Dual noise canceling microphones help with voice recognition. Gyro, accelerometer, and e-compass track head movement and make gesture recognition possible. The whole thing is powered by a 7.2 watt-hour battery. That's not much, but the headmount display presumably doesn't draw nearly as much as a regular full-size display (and an extended 17.8 watt-hour battery is available).
The idea then is to use this assembly, which is remarkably rugged and IP65-sealed, in numerous applications that benefit from hands-free computer access where the use of a conventional mobile computer simply isn't practical. A field service technician, for example, could peruse complex schematics while examining or working on a failing piece of equipment while the HC1's optional headmount camera wirelessly streams full 1080p video back to the home office where a specialist may provide explanation and instructions. And since the HC1 includes Bluetooth and WiFi, it can easily be used with Bluetooth ring or handheld scanners (like Motorola's RS507, CS3070 or DS3578), or connect to WWAN devices or mobile hotspots. The opportunities are compelling and almost endless.
In terms of background, the HC1 represents a collaboration between Motorola Solutions and Kopin, the company that developed the Golden-i microdisplay technology used in the HC1. Kopin also developed the speech/head-tracking user interface and special software development kit for the HD1 (see Kopin's Golden-i website).
There are, however, questions. For example, while Motorola did combine the computer into the headset, the resulting headgear is quite bulky and weighs 1.5 pounds, which is as much as a 10-inch tablet (and that's without the optional camera). Operators may quickly get used to it, but it's definitely much bigger than just a headset. There will be those who'll argue that at a time where super-powerful smartphones with 14mp cameras and retina-class displays weigh barely four ounces, a headset device should be smaller and lighter. And then there's the use of Windows CE, a legacy mobile OS just when Microsoft is about to launch the far more advanced Windows Phone 8. The counter argument would be that the HC1 is rugged, which smartphones are not, and that Windows CE is still the OS of choice in industrial applications. Voice recognition, too, still has a spotty track record despite Apple's Siri and all, but Motorola claims that between using simple keywords, distinct commands, a focused vocabulary and highly optimized hardware, HC1 users can reach very high accuracy (98-99%). So there are pros and cons, but we definitely applaud Motorola for taking a shot at it.
Watch the below video for an idea how the HC1 works and how it can be used out there in the field. It may not be the next evolution of mobile computing, but it's definitely an interesting and potentially very productive use of mobile electronics.