Associated Press - A new twist in the old car-repair shop

A new twist in the old car-repair shop


Associated Press

GRAPEVINE, Texas - Kurt Ward tilted his head, fingered a keypad at his side, and a schematic drawing of a Corvette engine appeared on a tiny glass screen hanging in front of his right eye.

With a click, Ward could zoom in for a better look or change the page, while literally keeping his other eye on the engine block.

For about six weeks, Ward has tested the gadget - a 28-ounce wireless computer worn on the belt, and a screen attached to a baseball cap - that lets him read from manufacturers' online auto-repair manuals as he works on cars.

"It really saves you time on your diagnostics because you don't have to go back and forth," he said, referring to the usual method of walking over to a desktop computer, printing out a page and carrying that back to the car.

The little computer is called Nomad, and it is made by Microvision Inc. of Bothell, Wash., using technology developed for the military.

Microvision said the U.S. Army has used 100 Nomads in Iraq, allowing tank commanders to check readings on the tank's battlefield computer while standing in the hatch opening.

Far from the battlefields of Iraq, Microvision has targeted the huge Texas auto-repair market since rolling out a new version of the Nomad in March, but it's been slow to catch on. Aside from Classic Chevrolet, where Ward works, company officials could only name one other Texas dealership that uses the technology.

Mike Zorn, service manager at Classic Chevrolet, thinks such technology could be the future of the car-repair business. He compared it to the switch about a decade ago from phone book-sized repair manuals to looking up instructions on special Web sites - only shade-tree mechanics still use the old paper tomes.

Today's vehicles are loaded with computer chips and fancy electronics, he explained. Mechanics must use special diagnostic tools for even many of the most basic repairs.

"It's not a matter of turning wrenches anymore," Zorn said. "The training these guys get involves a lot of electronics, a lot of math. They don't even like to be called mechanics - they're technicians now."

For the dealer, the wearable computer may offer the same promise of most new technology - more productivity. Zorn believes the computers will let his workers do 30 percent more in the same time.

The service manager will test that hypothesis over the next year, with five of his 27 technicians using the Nomad. Zorn didn't want to discuss financial terms of the contract, but Microvision lists a suggested price of $3,995 or monthly lease payments of $175 for one computer and headset.

The Nomad uses a wireless connection to access repair manuals on the Internet, and it also has a USB port to connect with other devices. Light beams project files in red on the glass screen. Microvision said it is working on a voice-control feature to eliminate the need for the touchpad.

Microvision's dream for the Nomad goes far beyond the car dealerships. Executives say the company will target truck- and aircraft-maintenance shops next.

"Our ultimate vision is seeing service technicians of all kinds - like guys who are out there repairing office equipment - using our system," said Thomas E. Sanko, the company's vice president of marketing.

The company also has licensed technology patented by the University of Washington to use tiny projectors to display images on the retina of the wearer's eye. Microvision believes the technology could be used by doctors or by consumers in pursuits such as 3D gaming.

Until the retinal-scanning display finds a market, Microvision will continue to depend on government contracts, which accounted for nearly half of its $14.7 million in sales last year - the company lost $26.2 million.

Ward, the mechanic in Grapevine, said that after a few hours, he hardly noticed he was wearing a computer. The only drawback seemed to be that he sometimes had to turn away from sunlight to read the screen.

Shifting the eye's focus from the tiny screen to a car engine is no problem, he said.

"It's like looking past the raindrops on the windshield when you're driving down the road," he said.

A brief history of Microvision Inc., maker of a wireless wearable computer...

A brief history of Microvision Inc., maker of a wireless wearable computer for auto technicians:

_ Founded in 1993, based in Bothell, Wash.

_ Fewer than 200 employees.

_ Products include the Nomad for auto technicians and the Flic Laser Bar Code Scanner for recording bar-code information.

_ Lost $26.2 million on sales of $14.7 million in 2003, and has lost more than twice the amount of its revenue over the past three years.

_ Chief Executive Richard F. Rutkowski was paid a salary of $353,000 and a $100,000 bonus last year, plus other compensation of $96,052 and stock options.

_ Listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market, ticker symbol MVIS.

_ Shares nearly hit $70 at the height of the dot-com boom. They have traded between $3.75 and $10.93 in the past year.