Culture

Check out this amazingly awkward face computer from 1995

Who could have imagined that Xybernaut’s expensive and bulky Mobile Assistant would not catch on?

Culture

Check out this amazingly awkward face computer from 1995

Who could have imagined that Xybernaut’s expensive and bulky Mobile Assistant would not catch on?
Culture

Check out this amazingly awkward face computer from 1995

Who could have imagined that Xybernaut’s expensive and bulky Mobile Assistant would not catch on?

Last week, my editor sent me a link to a black-and-white photo from Getty’s archive of a woman in some sort of business lobby, pressing a button to call the elevator. She’s wearing a headset with a computer over one eye, connected by a thick wire to a preposterously large box of electronics around her waist. The caption reads, simply: “Photo of Dorsey McGlone waiting for the elevator in her building wearing the body computer.”

“FIND OUT THE STORY BEHIND THIS PHOTO,” my editor told me.

Dorsey McGlone wearing the Mobile Assistant

Dorsey McGlone wearing the Mobile Assistant

The device in the picture, taken for a Washington Post article in 1995, was dubbed the “Mobile Assistant.” It was a voice-controlled contraption that was patented in 1994 by a Virginia-based company called Computer Products & Services Inc., and it was perhaps the earliest wearable computer to make a real go at the mass market.

The Mobile Assistant, which averaged around three pounds not including the headset, was supposed to make accessing computer-stored information an easier, more integrated task for the average person. Think of the way in which most people handily use their smartphones to check shopping lists, notes to themselves, etc. “What we really want to do is become the laptop killers,” co-founder Edward Newman told The Washington Post.

The Mobile Assistant included a utility belt (holding the computer’s hard drive, microprocessor, battery, and mouse) and a headpiece (holding the microphone, earphone, and mini monitor over one eye). The idea for a more handy computer had stemmed from the plight of mechanics, repair technicians, and other blue-collar workers who had to constantly switch between doing their intensely physical work and consulting computers for relevant files and data. The user could instead use the miniature mouse or spoken voice commands to navigate through folders and files, which would then be visible on the tiny monitor.

At the time, laptops cost around $3,000 for 150 MHz of computing power. The original Mobile Assistant was priced in the steep $10,000 to $17,000 range, but by the time the Mobile Assistant V was introduced in 2001, the cost had dropped to around $4,000.

Previously, wearables were largely cobbled-together versions concentrated in the space of MIT’s campus; alumnus Steve Mann’s first at-home experiments predated the invention of the laptop. CPSI, which renamed itself Xybernaut and went public in 1996, was one of the first to build and sell wearable computers at a large scale.

Despite the Mobile Assistant's clunkiness and lack of functionality, it appears that it actually had some users. According to The Washington Post, Xybernaut sold fewer than 10,000 mobile computers between 1990 and 2005 — which means it sold more than zero. Who were these alleged users? One 1999 CNN report described the “vast majority” of them as “automotive, shipping and aerospace workers who use wearable computers on factory or facility floors.”

Xybernaut scored a partnership with a German steel mill, which planned to use the devices to improve its maintenance processes. The company also struck a deal with telecom company Bell Canada, which agreed to have its employees participate in a pilot program. By 2003, Xybernaut was reportedly distributing $600,000's worth of wearables throughout the U.S. Armed Forces “for a variety of inspection, maintenance and repair functions related to military equipment currently on ‘active-duty’,” according to Military & Aerospace Electronics, and had international offices in Germany and Japan.

Unfortunately for Xybernaut, the company lost more than $162 million in a span of 15 years. It avoided going out of business by issuing 200 million additional shares in order to mitigate the lack of product sales. In addition, Newman, who was president, and his brother Steven, who was CEO, were fired in May 2005 after an internal audit found they were using company funds for personal expenses and indulging in nepotistic practices. The next month, Xybernaut filed for bankruptcy protection.

While there had been some success with the employee pilot programs, Xybernaut’s wearable computers did not take off. The technology was not being developed fast enough, one tech strategy analyst told The Washington Post in 2005: “A part of the problem is that they have this line of products that were a little on the big and bulky side and had battery problems. I know that they spent a lot of money, they were developing new products all the time, but they didn’t have enough sales to make any money.”

Georgia Tech professor and pioneer of wearable computing Thad Starner further detailed the Mobile Assistant’s flaws to The Outline over the phone, citing weak points in arguably the most important component of a wearable computer: the user experience. “Think about the interface on your phone, and using that when you’re walking, right? It just uses very coarse finger motions, swipes, that kind of thing,” he said. “Now try and imagine using a mouse and Windows 95, with those cascading menus while you’re walking around. It’s virtually impossible. So there wasn’t really the idea of mobile interfaces back then, certainly not in the Windows ecosystem. Everything there was dedicated to very small cursors and very finicky interfaces.”

In other words, Xybernaut’s devices used desktop processors and operating systems for a device with a completely different set of uses. The company didn’t realize the need to adapt the user interface until it was too late. The 2002 release of the lighter, less expensive Poma (“personal media appliance”) model was better designed but couldn’t turn a profit in time to save the business, Starner said. “It was a decent product for the time, but I don’t think Xybernaut was, by that point, in a position to capitalize on it,” he said.

A model wearing a 2002 version of the Mobile Assistant, the POMA

A model wearing a 2002 version of the Mobile Assistant, the POMA

The executives’ shady financial dealings didn’t help. Ed Newman and Steve Newman, along with several investors, were indicted in 2007 for securities fraud and money laundering. Although the company was reported to have emerged from bankruptcy in 2006, there is no record of recent business activity, and the Xybernaut website is now defunct.

There is one final piece of the mystery that I’m still itching to know more about: the woman in the photo, Dorsey McGlone. Who was she? What did she really think of this futuristic new technology at the time? Was she part of one of Xybernaut’s pilot programs, or was she simply an enthusiastic early adopter? I was able to find a Dorsey McGlone who appears to work at Deloitte in Boston, but she did not respond to my attempts to reach her.

Dorsey, if you’re reading this, call me.

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