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September 17, 2007

Taking a handheld computer underwater

When I took that advanced NAUI class I was exposed to all sorts of disciplines. Night diving, light salvage, advanced buoyancy, navigation, deep diving, rescue, using scooters -- all were part of the training. On my own I also picked up the basics of underwater photography, learned how to go about high altitude diving and now have taken the Nitrox class. But I learned even more, and that is how to integrate scuba diving into my work, which is reviewing and writing about all sorts of gadgets and technology, from digital cameras to handheld computers to those ultra-rugged notebooks that the military or firefighters use.

How would diving come in handy for that? Well, with cameras it is obvious. There are many of them that you can take underwater. Most with housings, and now more and more that don't even need one as long as you don't go deep. So knowing camera technology and being a diver lets me take my reviews underwater, and that opened a whole new area for me, one that I greatly enjoy.

But computers? I am not talking dive computers here, the ones we take down to great depths, but just regular computers. So what's this all about? Well, manufacturers realize that not all PDAs and notebook computers will lead a sheltered life sitting on desktops and meeting room tables. Some are used outdoors, some are dropped, some are rained on, and some may even get banged around or crushed. The military, for example, needs the equivalent of a HumVee in a computer, and not some plasticky thing. Anyone who uses a computer as a tool for a job needs just that, a tool, and not a gleaming conversation piece with a panorama screen so that DVDs can be watched on it.

Which means that there is a significant industry out there that makes nothing but tough, rugged computers for special purposes. Panasonic for example, they are a household name with their TVs and electronics, but they also make the "Toughbook" line of notebooks that can take much more punishment than a standard laptop. Companies like UPS or FedEx buy hundreds of thousands of handheld computers they use on the job, to scan and track packages and capture signatures. Those handhelds must be pretty tough to survive all that, day after day and month after month.

There are some standards the industry uses to describe how rugged a computer is. Most come from the military and simply describe testing procedures. The MIL-STD (military standard) alone consists of hundreds of pages of how it's all done. Most countries have their own, and then there are some industry associations and institutes that also have standards, so it can get a bit confusing. Reading and deciphering those ruggedness specifications, and then figuring out what it means in real life, is part of my job. The one standard I think matters more than most is the IP rating. That stands for "Ingress Protection" and was defined by the International Electrotechnical Commission. A mobile computer's IP Rating is expressed as a two-digit number, like IP-56. The first number designates protection from solids (from 0 to 6), while the second number designates protection from liquids (from 0 to 8).

All dive computers would have an IP68 rating if they were tested for that. IP68 means they are completely protected from dust getting inside, and, of course, they are completely waterproof and protected from the effects of immersion. Regular computers are not. They don't have to be. But maybe they should, at least to a degree.

To make a long story shorter, there are some handheld computers with an IP67 rating, which means they can actually be immersed into water and survive. It's just baby steps for now, with immersion usually limited to about a meter and for no longer than 30 minutes or so. And even that is extremely rare. It so happens that I got one of those computers to review and test, a very tough handheld from a company called Tripod Data Systems. Their new Nomad computer is for the military, for surveyors, and others that need to computer and communicate in extreme conditions. It's a very sophisticated unit with a fast processor and a razor-sharp display that puts the Apple iPhone to shame. And it's rated IP67, with 30 minute immersion to a meter of water.

Needless to say, I had to check that out for myself. My regulator and BC had just come back from their first annual service and I was absolutely dying to get back underwater. If I had a dive buddy, I'd have gone up to Lake Tahoe to catch another dive or two before the water gets too cold up there. But I could not find one, and so it had to be my pool.

Preparing for the dive with the Trimble Nomad computer required some planning. First was the mental step in deciding to actually do it -- take an expensive piece of equipment underwater, one that I needed to send back to the manufacturer. What if it flooded? The second was to record the event, and for that I needed cameras. I decided to use a Casio Exilim EX-Z77, also here for review, for the above-water scenes as it includes a cool new "YouTube mode" which means it spits out video optimized for the YouTube video sharing service. For underwater I picked a SeaLife DC600, mounted on a regular tripod. My eleven-year-old son Morgan was my assistant and he certainly earned his pay (in chocolate-covered peanut pretzels).

So I am finally all geared up and wearing my new "Edge" 3-mil wetsuit. I do some preliminary tests by carefully immersing the computer into the water and watch for bubbles. On camera. No bubbles. Now Morgan joins me in the water with his snorkel gear. He holds the only slightly negatively buoyant tripod with the SeaLife camera on it steady and starts recording. I am going down, making sure not to descend deeper than three or four feet, holding the Nomad computer in my hand. I circle the pool, then stop in front of the camera and operate the computer with its stylus. The touch screen operates just fine. I bring up some menus, click here and there - no problem at all. The Nomad, like many handheld computers, has handwriting recognition, and so we try to capture that in a closeup. It works, but the screen is too reflective to get a good shot with the camera, and so that didn't quite pan out. I do a final underwater lap around the pool and surface, with Morgan capturing that on the Casio.

So that was diving with a handheld computer that was probably never meant to be used in scuba gear. But it could handle it, and now I wonder if perhaps we won't be seeing underwater computers sometime soon. They'd sure beat a white slate and a pencil. Perhaps. There are times when throwing expensive technology at a simple problem makes no sense, but I'd like to see it anyway. Imagine drawing, reading an eBook, emailing or testing, or even browsing the web during a long, boring deco stop. Or using the dive slate's built-in digital camera. The opportunities are endless.

As is, I got to dive again, and I got to do something new and exciting. I needed that. An event that I had looked forward to all year was recently cancelled. It was to be my first dive trip to a "real" exotic dive location. I had practically lived for that all this year, thought about it while falling asleep and dreamed how great it'd be, but due to circumstances beyond my control, it won't happen. So that totally threw me for a loop and left profound sadness that I have been unable to shake. I think diving and all that it means and includes is more than just a sport. I am not quite sure what it is, but I know it changed my life.

Posted by conradb212 at September 17, 2007 11:20 PM

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