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Head-worn computers boost service output (Subscription Only)



Published 10/18/2004 in Automotive News

The maker of a wearable computer for auto mechanics is making inroads with dealerships seeking greater service productivity. The designer of the computer, MICROVISION Inc. of Bothell, Wash., also is marketing its technology to automakers and suppliers.


INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: Tech mate

Honda service technicians are about to get a new tool - a visor-mounted computer called Nomad.



By John Couretas

Automotive News / September 22, 2003



Take inventory of a Honda service technician's tool chest, and you'll likely find the usual items. A socket set. Diagnostic equipment. A set of screwdrivers.



Return in a couple of years, and you'll probably see a wireless, visor-mounted device called the Nomad system. Nomad converts Web-based service manuals into viewable images that appear to float in a technician's field of view.



American Honda Motor Co. (honda.com) was scheduled to unveil the system for its U.S. dealers at its national dealers meeting in San Diego on Friday, Sept. 19 - after this section went to press. Until then, dealers had not seen Nomad, Honda says.



The automaker says purchase of Nomad systems will be optional for dealers.



Microvision Inc. (microvision.com) of the Seattle area developed the technology. Nomad grew from Microvision's work on cockpit information displays for military jet fighter pilots.



Honda has signed a letter of intent to buy 3,800 Nomad systems for an undisclosed price. Technicians will begin using them late next year.



Early trials of the system at Honda's Torrance, Calif., facilities in April produced huge savings of labor time in tests with both experienced and novice technicians, the automaker says. In addition to completing service jobs faster, Honda says the technology could bring big gains in customer satisfaction.



"The biggest advantage with this system is that you have both eyes open and both eyes looking at what you're doing," says Tom Laymon, American Honda's assistant vice president for national parts and service. "And you're going to have happy customers if you can repair it right the first time."



Two years ago, Honda assembled a team led by Laymon to survey other industries for advanced technology that might be useful in the auto business. The tech sleuths discovered a company building aircraft wiring harnesses with the Microvision imaging technology.



Clunky package



At the time, Nomad was a long way from prime time in automotive. The prototype unit tested by Honda consisted of what resembled a fishing vest loaded with batteries, electronic modules, a touch pad and cables attached to a clunky head piece. The 6.5-ounce head piece was fitted with a drop-down monocle that scanned images into the wearer's field of view. This was unsuitable for a Honda technician working in a busy service department. But Honda wanted to see if the concept could be proved to the point where further testing was warranted.



Honda and Microvision devised a test. Two technicians were recruited - one experienced and the other a journeyman. Each was run through a battery test following Honda procedures. The test involved inspecting the battery, testing connections, using three different electronic testers and a charger, and then starting and stopping the vehicle.



The experienced mechanic, using printed instructions, completed the task in just under 14 minutes. With Nomad, the experienced technician shaved almost eight minutes off the test. The journeyman saved 5 minutes, 35 seconds using the imaging gear.



Moving from paper



Nomad could be a promising evolutionary step in the departure from printed shop manuals. These manuals can run more than 1,500 pages - not counting service bulletins and other updates.



Two years ago, Honda converted the hard-copy manual to a Web-based version that was piped into computer monitors on the shop floor. But technicians still had to pace from the car to the computer cart. If they were busy, the technicians might skip the step and proceed by memory. That wasn't a recipe for increased customer satisfaction scores.



This year, Honda introduced wireless computer tablets for service technicians that could be propped up in the engine compartment and read like a book. Again, that often involved a shift of attention from the job to the PC tablet. Although that may not seem like much of a hassle, it's important to remember that service technicians are doing a lot of information gathering early on in a job - reading fault codes and then punching up the factory-prescribed procedure to diagnose and repair a problem.



Many unknowns



While Microvision's technology shows promise, it contains many unknowns.



"The bigger question is how soon - if ever - the technology will get out of that niche," says Jackie Fenn, a fellow in emerging trends and technologies with Boston-based Gartner Inc. (gartner.com).



Fenn describes Microvision as an "extremely interesting" company but warns that it faces significant challenges in reducing the cost and weight of its gear, and building products to robust industry standards.



Nomad is Microvision's first commercial product for the auto industry. But the company also is developing advanced in-vehicle display technology in partnership with BMW and Volkswagen AG. Microvision is hoping to demonstrate that what some refer to as "see-through software" will be cheaper, brighter and less power-hungry than flat-panel and other displays used in cars and trucks. Potential applications include reconfigurable instrument clusters as well as console and head-up displays.



In July, Microvision said it signed a contract with the Emerging Technologies Group of Volkswagen of America Inc. (vw.com) in Palo Alto, Calif., to develop a prototype display to be tested this year.



Microvision also has built a prototype rear-seat entertainment display for a BMW 7-series sedan.



The publicly held company says it is working with an unnamed Tier 1 supplier and BMW (bmw.com) to produce a display for a 2006 model year vehicle. Microvision declined to name the supplier or the BMW model to be fitted with the display.



Working with others



Other car companies also have come calling. But R. Bruce Ridley, Microvision's industrial market manager, will only identify them as "those who are the most innovative."



Working with some of the biggest car companies is pretty heady stuff for a 185-person company that is still, for all intents and purposes, an R&D firm. Microvision relies heavily on federal research and development contracts, which last year accounted for 83 percent of its income.



Microvision, of Bothell, Wash., reported sales of $15.9 million in 2002 but has yet to report a profit in its 10-year history. The company only launched its first two commercial products last year: the Nomad system and a portable hand-held bar code scanner.



Hurdles ahead



Honda's Laymon says Nomad is not likely to be ready for sale to dealers and technicians until late 2004 at the earliest. The automaker wants a smaller, lighter version of Nomad and is asking for a retail price comparable to a full-featured laptop computer - about $1,500 to $2,000 each. The first market for these devices among Honda's 8,000 U.S. service techs will be master mechanics, who comprise 5 percent to 10 percent of the total.



In response, Microvision is readying two next-generation versions of Nomad. One features a module that weighs 2 ounces less than the current version. It attaches to the bill of a ballcap. The other is a halo-type headset fitted with a camera and microphone.



But Microvision "still has a lot more homework to do, as well as we do" before the first Honda technicians begin to use Nomad routinely, Laymon says.



"I want to run this through the mill more times than you can believe."


INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: It all comes down to light

By John Couretas

Automotive News / September 22, 2003



Microvision Inc.'s technology eliminates conventional display screens by projecting an image directly onto the retina of a viewer's eye. It does this by streaming high-speed bursts of low-power light into the eye in a precisely scanned pattern. As a result, the projected image appears to float in the field of view.



With the Nomad gear tested by American Honda Motor Co., a typical image resembles a ghostly Web page from an electronic service manual. The Nomad user can focus on the image and then look through it or around it - preserving full peripheral vision - with little trouble.



Microvision says that the usable field of view for the Nomad is roughly equivalent to a 17-inch computer monitor held at arm's length. The scanner presents no health risks and uses a light source about one-tenth of the power used in laser pointers, says Bruce Ridley, Microvision's industrial market manager.



The core technology that makes this all happen is a scanner on a chip manufactured with micromachining technology, along with drive electronics, a light source and optics to carry the signal.



A tiny mirror is hung on flexible mounts and activated by the drive electronics, which steer a tiny light beam at high speeds and with great accuracy. The scanner sends 30 million bursts of light into the eye per second to create an image comparable to that created by a high-resolution computer display.



The device can record an image as well as present it for display.



"We just have to move a little mirror and provide a low-power light source," says Ridley, with some understatement. "There's nothing really remarkable about this except how it's all put together."



Using manufacturing techniques perfected in the computer chip industry, Microvision says it is working to reduce the cost of producing the components and further miniaturize the entire package.

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