Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Virtual Computer Glove

Wearable computers are a Holy Grail of sorts for a wing of the developer world. And given the ubiquity and growing versatility of cell phones and iPods, wearing your PC or Mac might not be far off. For soldiers, that day might be even closer with the announcement of a new computer glove conjured up by a tiny Cambridge, Mass., startup, RallyPoint, created by a handful of MIT students in 2004.

For all the talk of network-centric warfare and the soldier as sensor, most of the attempts to computerize the troops have been maddeningly cumbersome. After 15 years in development, the Army's Land Warrior system initially produced a helmet with a flip-down eye piece, earphones and a microphone for a radio emitting encrypted signals for communications among units; a wireless network transmitter on the body armor; a battery, GPS transponder and 400 MHz computer, and a chest-mounted controller to operate it all. Troopers' M-4 rifles were fitted with digital sights. The package weighted in at 40 pounds and $85,000 per kit. That was trimmed to 16 pounds and $35,000 a pop, but still soldiers avoided the radio and eyepiece and found the maps and gun sights lagged real time, sometimes by as much as a minute.

But now, according to the MIT magazine, Technology Review, much of that heavy package has been winnowed down to fit in a single glove, one you can use to control a computer while grasping a steering wheel or pulling a trigger. Rally Point's Handwear Computer Input Device is "has four custom-built push-button sensors sewn into the fingers. Sensors on the tips of the middle and fourth fingers activate radio communications, a different channel for each finger," according to the magazine's April 28 article. "Another sensor on the lower portion of the index finger changes modes, from 'map mode' to 'mouse mode.' In map mode, the fourth sensor, located on the pinky finger, is used to zoom in on and out of the map; in mouse mode, it serves as a mouse-click button."

What's even cooler than the product is the company that produced it. RallyPoint is dedicated to what its Web site calls "professional heroes"--soldiers, firemen, law enforcement officers, and rescue personnel. "At RallyPoint, we aim to blend the spirit and creativity of young, free-thinking talent with the proven skills of seasoned experts to deliver innovative and significant solutions that reliably enhance the safety and effectiveness of professional heroes."

A couple years ago, the three then-students and lecturer who made up the fledgling firm won a $730,000 Defense small business innovative research contract. Now they have a contract with the Natick, Mass., Soldier Systems Center, home of Land Warrior.

It's easy to imagine many uses for the RallyPoint glove among professional heroes and even the less heroic among us. And it's nice to see a company focusing on these users first rather than as a spinoff from technology designed to enhance the experience of game players as they blow up, shoot, and massacre all manner of creatures and each other on screen.

Photo credit: Brittany Sauser in Technology Review

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spy Games

This just in: Wired magazine snagged a first look at three new computer games commissioned by the Defense Intelligence Agency to train new analysts to think better.

DIA paid Concurrent Technologies $2.6 million to have simulation studio Visual Purple create "Rapid Onset," "Vital Passage" and "Sudden Thrust." They might sound suspiciously like "Enduring Freedom," "Desert Storm" and other military adventures, but Wired pronounces the games "a surprisingly clever and occasionally surreal blend of education, humor and intellectual challenge."

Having spent yesterday at the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference in Washington at Fort McNair, I can say that immersive, distributed, virtual environments and games are winning acceptance beyond the evangelical crowd of early adopters. The audience at the National Defense University's Marshall Hall was peppered with military officers and vendor booths included Lockheed and SRA International. New entrants to second life included NDU's Information Resources Management College and the State Department, while Transportation, the Air Force and the National Guard have or will have their own worlds soon.

Wired also reports that the Army Intelligence Center is using a game to train interrogators (no, it's not based on 24).

Games, like virtual world training, may be establishing a firm beachhead in government, but computer security folks are just as suspicious of them as they are of virtual worlds. DIA had to buy standalone laptops to keep the new games off the network, Wired reports.

Photo from

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Virtual Police Work

Is this a look at the future of police work? Viewed more than 13,000 times already, this video of a robbery in process was posted to YouTube by the Weld County Colorado Sheriff's department in hopes the culprits might be recognized and caught.

As the price of video surveillance falls and the popularity of YouTube rises, will we see videos like this replace cops on the beat? Possibly. And if so, won't that leave them freer to pursue bigger and more pressing cases? This kind of video use raises far fewer civil liberties concerns than the ubiquity of cameras in, say, downtown London. And even as the shame-faced victim of a speeding cam myself, I can say the preventive effect could be worth the loss of privacy in some settings. You can bet I've slowed down in the vicinity of that recent photo and whenever I see a "camera-enforced" speed limit sign!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Virtual Data II

Here's a quick follow-up on my previous post about Hans Rosling and his amazing Trendalyzer. As I wrote, Google bought the tool and Gapminder, the organization that built and maintained it. Just last month, Google threw open the doors and made the Trendalyzer available to all potential users. In addition, Google is providing code for anyone to transform data into a number of terrific visualizations, from piles of money to 3D donut graphics to timelines. Apparently the only limits are the data and the developer's imagination. And once a developer has created a new data visualization gadget, anyone can adopt it, pour in their own data, and drop it into a Web page. Once I get the hang of it, I hope to add some myself.

Soon, I'll write more about data visualization, unified communications and collaboration, the Army's big new simulation contract, what I learned at the Virtual Worlds conference in New York and what I will learn at the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference coming up next week. I'm also working on my first video and hope to add a News Channel 8 interview with me about virtual government to the site.

So what's the holdup? Well, I am making a huge technological leap from the world of PCs to the Mac. Virtual journalism about virtual government fairly well requires it. If you want to do podcasts, put video on the Web, create multimedia stories online and create immersive explanatory environments where viewers not only can see and hear, but can experience information, there's just no better vehicle than the Mac. I've met almost no one who works in multimedia journalism or virtual worlds, who doesn't swear by Apple's products. Don't get me wrong, the transition is far from a snap and I didn't make it without trepidation, but I have done a nearly total immersion. I'm flailing and gasping as a result. To retain its elegance and intuitiveness, the Mac Book Pro remains very picky about its associates. Non-Mac printers, for example, do not receive a warm welcome. Nor did the professional quality digital audio recorder. And it will take a couple trips to the Apple store to get my favorites and other files transferred from my Dell desktop and laptop.

On the other hand, once I got the camera talking with the Mac, video dropped into iMovies and was easy to edit. My birthday brought an iPod Touch, so I'm anxious to see how iTunes does with my CDs. I've no doubt it will eagerly swallow up whatever I want to buy.

So watch out world! Once I become proficient with all this new tech, I'll be a multimedia master.