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Xybernaut Corp. of Fairfax, Va. has begun enlisting some of Japan’s top universities to help further its research and development of so-called “wearable computers,” the worldwide market for which is expected to be worth around $2 billion by 2003.

Keio and Tokyo universities are the first of the renowned Japanese campuses to join Xybernaut’s recently launched University Program, which also includes California Polytechnical Institute, Rutgers, and Bremen University in Germany.

The prestigious schools have agreed to help Xybernaut refine its industrial-use Mobile Assistant IV as well as explore potential features for a “PC-type Walkman” the company hopes to unveil to consumers late next year.

“Japanese universities are expected to be at the forefront in helping us develop better voice recognition technology as a substitute for computer keyboards, which are very clumsy to use in the Far East because of all the kanji characters,” said John Moynahan, senior vice president of Xybernaut. Universities carrying out research that leads to a commercial viable product stand to get royalties, Moynahan said. Japanese schools are already holding seminars on wearable PC technology and are conducting surveys on how to best satisfy consumers. The University Program comes on the heels of the launch late last year of the MA IV, a full-blown, voice-activated Intel Pentium computer built as a series of modules that link together and are worn on a belt, the user’s head or the wrist. The top-of-the-line retail offering fromXybernaut Corp., for example, looks like a set of studio-quality headphones with a protruding arm that covers one eye. A tiny screen at the end of the arm projects an image onto a mirror, which reflects into the user’s eye.

So far, wearables have found use in niche markets. Using short-range wireless networks, aircraft mechanics and warehouse managers use them to maintain constant access to critical data. Doctors and nurses access patient records on their rounds. Work orders can be filed from the field. In the future, wearable computers are likely to find their way into the hands of journalists, broadcasters, architects and paramedics. The U.S. market research firm International Data Corp. predicts Japan will account for 20-30 percent of the 170,000 MA IV’s it expects Xybernaut to sell in the next five years, said Ray Inasaka, Xybernaut’s Asian region marketing director. The MA IV sells in Japan for around 900,000 yen, and is being produced for global distribution by Sony Digital, Hitachi, Shimadzu and NEC. Xybernaut ‘s wearable units are designed to give users hands-free access to information stored in the computer’s 6.1 GB hard drive, in local area networks and on the Internet whenever and wherever it is needed. In Japan, Xybernaut counts NTT among its key customers and is courting the likes of Toyota Motor Corp. and Japan Airlines.

“In most businesses, about half of the employees don’t work at a fixed location and therefore don’t have continuous access to the billions of dollars worth of information technology their company has invested in,” said Moynahan. “With the MA IV, workers can function as part of an integrated, roaming network that allows immediate access to instruction manuals anywhere on the factory floor or out in the field.”

Beyond the industrial market, Xybernaut foresees a consumer model no bigger than today’s pocket televisions that will feature “retinal projection systems” instead of cumbersome headgear.

“We see the wearable computer replacing the pager, palm devices like the Pilot, global positioning systems in cars and notebook PCs,” says Moynahan. “It promises to become the new cornerstone of wireless connectivity in the same way that the cell phone has served the digital and analog communications industries.”