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

No comments: