At Comdex, wireless becomes wearable

LAS VEGAS , NEV. — It was a crisis on the Comdex show floor: the wireless-enabled vending machine broke down.

A long line of the conference’s attendees that wrapped around the Palm booth were put on hold for more than fifteen minutes while a technician was called over and refilled the machine. Once it was working again, those in the line could use their cell phone or personal digital assistants (PDAs) to buy a Pepsi, Mountain Dew or bottled water. If that didn’t work, the technician used his own phone.

It was a testament both to the amount of trouble people will go through to get a free drink and the underlying faith in the future of mobile and wireless technologies, which has once again dominated the hardware portion of the world’s largest IT show.

Laptops and PDAs began generating more buzz than desktops about two years ago, and filled a void that was created when PC makers like Compaq and Gateway began pulling out of Comdex Fall. This year, the trend continued but has also evolved considerably. Where once exhibitors showed off mobile devices of the future, there is an increased focus on how users will carry them or, in many cases, wear them.

Samsung Electronics, for example, gave North American audiences a preview of Scurry, a keyboard that uses gesture control to wrap input technology around the human hand. Intertial MEMs sensors signal processing and a variety of feedback schemes are incorporated into a sort of glove where the user taps in the air to create text on a screen. Users need to learn how to point each finger to make the right letter, but other digits, like the thumb, are used for more standard tasks like moving the cursor backward.

A Samsung spokeswoman said Scurry, which will debut in Asia by the second half of next year, is aimed at PDA users and tele-operators as well as the disabled. “We’ve also gotten a lot of interest from the military,” she said.

A similar idea is underway at Maui Innovative Peripherals Inc., which unveiled the Miracle Mouse. Intended for those with restricted mobility as well as gamers, the head-mounted device is equipped with an input signal that sits on the forehead. In “dwell” mode, users would move their head around to type on an onscreen keyboard. In “mouse” mode, users can angle their head to move the cursor to click on applications.

Maui spokeswoman Gina Burgos said the Miracle Mouse is not on the market yet but has been in development for several years. “There are some similar things out there,” she acknowledged, “but we do have some unique features like V-axis,” which is the ability to control the input signal by moving one’s head forward and back.

At a CEO Persectives Forum, Xybernaught chief executive Ed Newman said wearable hardware is the natural next step in the ongoing development of wireless technologies. Newman discussed the concept of a wearable enclosure that would handle only I/O and power but which could be connected to a PDA, laptop, in an airplane or a car. “You’ll never be out of sync. You’ll never have to worry about syncing in your Palm,” he said. “There’s no place for PDAs, cell phones or pagers to go except into wearables.”

Not everyone agrees, given the number of new and prototype standalone devices in the Las Vegas Convention Centre. DoCoMo, for example, is here for the first time with a large booth where the company is promoting both i-mode and FOMA, a W-CDMA based third-generation wireless service. To help put FOMA in context, the company has a series of mockups under glass that showed the range of devices where it could be used. An MPEG4 application viewer running 384 Kbps on a downward link combined a keyboard and screen that looked like a very small cellphone. A PDA videophone, meanwhile, offered 64 Kbps two-way transmission and came with a handset that was only slightly thicker than a Popsicle stick.

“As far as Japan goes, they are real products,” said DoCoMo spokeswoman Holly Foss. “They’re probably not talking about shipment dates here yet because they don’t want to make promises they can’t keep.”

Even in the already-crowded market for Palm OS-based devices, obscure companies proved that there was more competition still to come. In the heart of the Korean Pavillion, a firm called DoAll Infotec Inc. put three handhelds on display, including the Teldy for consumers and I-Mepple. The latter has a bar-code scanner on the front and is slightly larger than what is common at retail. Charlie Lee, Do All’s vice-president of international development, said businesses would use the i-Mepple to keep track of inventory once it becomes available worldwide in the second quarter of next year.

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