An 'auto'-sight tool

An 'auto'-sight tool

A wearable computer lets auto mechanics read paperwork without looking down.

NEWPORT NEWS -- With a futuristic visor-like computer wrapped around his head, J.D. Holland looks like a Star Trek character standing next to the Pontiac sitting in the Suttle Motors service center on Jefferson Avenue.

But Holland is just an auto mechanic who happens to be an early adopter of technology. He is diagnosing why the "check engine" light keeps coming on, and the wireless computer strapped to his head is going to feed him an answer without walking over to a personal computer sitting by the service bay.

"I've been here 23 years, and this is one of the best tools we've gotten," said Holland. "It's like playing a video game, like virtual reality."

The service garage at Suttle Motors became the first in Virginia to adopt the new gadget made by Washington-based Microvision last fall. The product's route to the commercial market is not unlike many technology companies in Hampton Roads - developed for the military and adapted for the civilian world.

Microvision made the device, called Nomad, for the military to view battle maps and readouts normally displayed on computer screens, while still maintaining situational awareness - the ability to see what's in front of them without looking down. The company developed versions for use in helicopters and fighter jets, and about 100 systems were sent to Iraq to be used by commanders of the Army's Stryker vehicles.

Now the military is using Nomad for maintenance of aircraft and vehicles, said spokesman Matt Nichols.

The military is a perfect proving ground when you're creating a durable product that you want to sell to the private sector, said Nichols. The 15 Nomads at Suttle have held up well.

"If there's a slight drop, it doesn't hurt them because they're padded pretty good," said Holland. "So far, we haven't had any get damaged."

A small, clear piece of glass similar to an eyeglass lens hangs from the wireless unit. The glass piece displays what looks like a mini-computer screen. Technicians can control the cursor on the screen by a mouse pad attached to their hip. The cursor follows the movements of a finger rather than a mouse and nearby buttons control other click-type functions.

The screen will show whatever the mechanic needs to see, from step-by-step instructions for diagnosing a problem to a diagram of every piece under the hood. Using technology like that is nothing new, but now technicians don't need to walk between a computer and the vehicle.

"This allows you to keep going," said George Hawes, director of fixed operations at Suttle. "You stay right there at the car and keep working."

That means higher productivity levels for mechanics who wear the Nomad headpiece, which has been on the market for about a year and is being used in 50 dealerships nationwide. Holland estimates it saves about a third of the time it would normally take without the Nomad.

It generally takes employees about 48 work hours to get used to the Nomad, said Hawes.

"After they use it a little while, it becomes almost like a part of your body," said Hawes.

But the new gizmo is not for everyone. Hawes said he'll probably order more and thinks one day all mechanics will be wearing them, but not everyone is waiting in line to get a Nomad.

"Some people don't like change," said Hawes. "Some of our mechanics are older, and younger people are more comfortable with computers."