The HC1 crams full-fledged computing power into a hands-free design. Is wearable tech coming of age?
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Thanks to smartphones, access to virtually any content is in the palm of one's hand. Where does mobile computing go next? With the announcement of its HC1 headset, Motorola Solutions points to a future in which hands aren't even part of the equation.
Though the HC1 superficially resembles a beefed-up version of the phone-based headsets found in most offices, it's actually a wearable computer powered by a dual-core 800-MHz processor. Designed for use in the defense, utilities, telecommunications, aerospace, and aviation industries, the device displays information on an eye-level screen that sits at the end of a sturdy arm, roughly like the mouthpiece on a traditional headset.
The screen employs Kopin Corporation's optical microdisplays, which rely on a transmissive LCD technology that uses high-quality single-crystal silicon transistors to create screens that are relatively tiny, yet sharp and pixel-dense. The HC1's display is situated such that it does not obstruct the user's normal field of vision but can be seen with a slight downward glance. Motorola says the screen offers a high-resolution image that is comparable to looking at a 15-inch laptop screen.
Tom Bianculli, senior director of emerging business at Motorola Solutions, said in an interview that users can employ voice commands and head gestures to launch documents, applications, and images, and to toggle these items onto and off of the display.
To illustrate the headset's use, Bianculli described a service worker repairing heavy machinery. It can be impractical and even dangerous, he said, for the worker to take a hand away from the task, let alone to reference a document or schematic. If this worker were equipped with an HC1, however, he or she could examine relevant content without compromising situational awareness by quickly glancing at the headset-mounted screen.
Bianculli said Motorola designed the HC1 for a number of use cases, including field technicians who need to collaborate in real time with colleagues in the home office; inspectors who need to annotate photos, documents, or video files while verifying proof of condition at a facility or location; and utilities workers using augmented reality displays to see networks of subterranean pipes and wires from above the street.
Some of these applications involve only the data stored on the device's onboard SSD, but others require add-ons or specific conditions. Real-time collaboration between a control center and a field worker, for example, can be facilitated through Wi-Fi, but if a network's not available, users can also tether via Bluetooth to a compatible Motorola smartphone's cellular network.
Tasks that require visual information to be transmitted from the device, meanwhile, need a camera accessory that clips onto the headset. Designed for video but capable of taking still photos, the camera captures 1080p footage with a 2-MP sensor that Bianculli characterized as well-equipped for tightly confined, dimly lit spaces. He declined to identify the sensor's manufacturer (other than to say that is a major player in industrial markets) but offered that the sensor manages "extremely good low light performance" because it is larger than those found in most smartphones. He also said the camera's lens covers a fairly wide angle, with a field of view that approximates that of the human eye.
Motorola built the HC1 to take knocks in harsh environments. Bianculli said the device features extensive sealing against dust and moisture, can survive a four-foot drop onto concrete, and will operate in temperatures ranging from -10 to 50 degrees Celsius.
Bianculli also stressed that ergonomics and other "human factors" were not neglected. He said the headset can be comfortably worn with eyeglasses, safety glasses, and hard hats, for example. Soft goods that come into direct contact with skin provide comfort, meanwhile, and can be swapped out to accommodate multiple workers who share a single device.
The device's battery is another industrial-grade feature. It's user-removable, according to Bianculli, and it will be available in both standard and extended versions. The standard version is intended to supply around eight hours of juice, while the extended option powers the device for roughly twice as long.
Given the HC1's ability to stream video from tight spaces and challenging environments, the device could also be utilized for rescue and disaster-relief applications, but Bianculli said the headset probably won't be used for military missions. Though soldiers infiltrating a hostile compound might benefit from direct communication with a command center or from real-time access to the compound's floor plan, military standards are "on another level," Bianculli stated, and this iteration of the technology isn't aimed at such needs. That said, he mentioned that the U.S. Army has expressed interest in using the HC1 to improve the efficiency of tank repairs.
Though combat missions aren't in the cards, the scope of the HC1's uses is hard to define. The base software is already fairly polished; the device can understand voice commands in six languages, and it accurately interprets vocal input more than 98% of the time. But because Motorola plans to make an SDK available, additional functions will ultimately be decided by developers.
With the SDK offering potentially creative applications that could expand wearable technology's nascent definition, such gadgetry could be poised to spread outside the industrial arena. Google, which owns Motorola Mobility but is distinct from Motorola Solutions, has already flirted with this idea via its Project Glass. Time will tell if devices we wear, instead of carry, will be mobility's next big shift.
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