Motorola unveils a computer that straps onto your head

By Mark Gregory
BBC World Service technology correspondent

Media caption,
Is 'headset computing' the future?

Imagine a computer that isn't a rectangular box like the PC on your desk or the smartphone in your pocket. Nor is it driven by a touchscreen or mouse and keyboard.

Instead you wear it on your head and interact with it through voice commands.

This isn't a fantasy look-ahead to what computers may be like in years to come.

It's an actual product that is scheduled to go on sale in the New Year.

Just don't expect an exciting name.

Image caption,
The HC1 headset features wi-fi and bluetooth connectivity

The HC1 is made by Motorola Solutions, which should not to be confused with the other half of what used to be the same company, Motorola Mobility, a handset-maker now owned by Google.

The device looks a bit like a massively overgrown telephone headset, with overtones of a cycle helmet and maybe a gas mask thrown in.

It comes in two parts: there's an adjustable cradle that fixes the device to your head, and the computer itself is in a metal bar that curls around the side of your head.

A miniature screen is located at the front, in front of your face. You need to look down slightly to view it.

Using voice commands, the user can order the device to open files, check emails or zoom in with the camera to look in closer detail at what's in front of them.

Hands-free helper

It's intended for use in working environments where people need to access complex information, and having both hands free is an important priority.

"If you imagine somebody up, say, a telegraph pole at the very top, needing to rewire something, they don't really want to be fiddling with a laptop," explains Paul Reed, Motorola's mobile computing product manager.

"They can get all the information they need and do the job safely with this device."

Potential users include maintenance engineers in remote locations, construction workers, architects and warehouse staff pulling stock off the shelves following complex computerised schedules.

Nottingham-based software firm, Ikanos Consulting, is already developing an app for the product called Paramedic Pro. It is designed to let ambulance workers view medical records and stream video back to a hospital to prepare doctors for a patient's arrival.

Another firm has shown interest in using the headset to help its workers maintain power lines at heights. Its staff are required to climb out of helicopters to do the job - it is easy to understand how a hands-free computer would be useful in these circumstances!

Image caption,
One UK developer is developing an app to make the headset useful to medics

Motorola reckons it will sell several thousand of its computer headsets each year at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000 each (£1,900 to £2,500). That is approximately the same price as a rugged laptop.

But product manager Paul Reed recognises that the device is unlikely to find a mass market.

"Its very niche, very specific to certain types of enterprise," he explains.

"I doubt if we're going to walk down the High Street wearing these devices in future."

Vision of the future

While the appeal of this particular bit of kit is limited, it contains technologies that may eventually make their way into a wide range of consumer devices.

Earlier this year Google generated worldwide publicity when it demonstrated Project Glass - an internet-connected spectacle frame featuring a built-in camera and small display, producing augmented reality views.

They look not unlike designer sunglasses with a small screen in one corner, instead of a lens.

Motorola's computer headset looks clumsy in comparison, but it is a finished product designed for specific tasks and is about to go on sale. By contrast, Google's project is still at the concept stage and will initially be limited to developers when the first models ship in 2013.

Image caption,
Developers had to pay $1,500 to pre-order Google's Project Glass

Both devices fit into a fast-rising category referred to as wearable computers.

Juniper Research, a consultancy, estimates the global market for wearable computers will be worth $1.5bn a year by 2014, up from $800m this year.

The prime driver has been growth in health-and-fitness devices worn on the body that interact with smartphones, including applications such as Nike+ and Fitbit Tracker that allow data from training sessions to be uploaded and analysed.

But Juniper Research reckons there's plenty of further untapped potential.

It predicts that fitness and entertainment will be the areas consumers are most likely to see value in in wearable computing devices, while demand from commercial enterprises will be strongest in aviation and warehouse work, as well as for military applications.

This is all a drop in the ocean compared to sales of smartphones, laptops and other conventional computing devices.

But it may point to an era in which people interact with computers in new ways by wearing them rather than putting them on a desk or in a pocket, and by waving or talking to them instead of touching a screen or pointing with a mouse.

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