Friday, May 30, 2008

Evading the .mil Ban on Web 2.0

The Army has quietly figured out a work-around to the Defense Department ban on visiting social media sites--blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook and the like--from official computer networks. Unlike the Air Force and Navy, which remain blocked off from the most popular and arguably useful parts of the Internet, the Army simply has built replicas behind its own firewalls.

The ever-amazing David Axe, military reporter extraordinaire, reveals the Army's inventiveness in evading what he terms the military's "civil war" over Internet use in the first of a three-part series at the new Washington Independent online news site.

In January, the Army's Myspace/Facebook clone went live, mimicking the civilian sites' status updates, messaging and ability to add friends, in the Army's case "members I value," according to Axe. It's apparently a boon to the frequently deployed as they try to keep up with colleagues. Blogging capability came online in April.

The .mil Internet ban hasn't only affected uniformed service members. It also has hobbled researchers and civilian managers and employees attempting to take advantage of Web collaboration tools. At the recent Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference in Washington, Defense employees explained that to experiment with synthetic online worlds, they had to set up off-network computer farms to connect to Second Life and the like. The Air Force training command had to create a .edu domain to get around the proscription in order to prepare to create its virtual airbase.

As Axe reports, the Army's social networking efforts began with a small group of young officers who created online forums to instantly and directly share tips and lessons in the 1990s. The Army officially OK'd the forums in 2002 and the MySpace clone, in turn, grew out of them. The overall effort is housed at the Center for Company-Level Leaders at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Photo credit: Tetra Rugged Computers

Virtual Training Exposed--An Hour With a Guru

What's a blog for if not to toot your own horn now and again? So I'll take that opportunity now and invite you to join me for a Webinar I am moderating on June 26 at 2 p.m. EDT. Roger Smith, one of the best-known analysts of virtual training, will be talking with me about how computer games, supercomputers and Web 2.0 are revolutionizing the way the U.S. military prepares to fight and to win hearts and minds.

Smith is chief technology officer for the Army's simulation-buying organization and has had a close-up view of the revolution in training wrought by technology, war, and politics in recent years. He is a fascinating thinker who has developed a terrifically enlightening theory about how gaming platforms are a disruptive technology in the simulation market.

Here's the teaser for the Webinar:

Simulation 2.0: Revolutionary Changes in Military Training and Beyond

Thursday, June 26, 2008
2:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time

The military simulation market is in the midst of radical changes perhaps felt most deeply by the Army. Deployed extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it is fighting unconventional battles, the Army is in need of new equipment, and rapid training and mission rehearsal for untraditional warfare against an ever-evolving enemy. Its training must keep up. At the same time, the service is moving to a new model of buying simulation as a service and is taking advantage of huge increases in computing power and an explosion in immersive gaming to create new learning opportunities for troops in the field.

Roger Smith, Chief Technology Officer for the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, will discuss how the Army is taking advantage of the revolution in simulation and training with Anne Laurent, former Executive Editor of Government Executive and founder of The Agile Mind, a new blog about virtual government.

To listen in, you'll need to register here.

While he's a rock star in the simulation world, Smith isn't as well known beyond it. He should be, though, for he is a gatekeeper at a crossroads of increasing interest and importance to everyone running programs in government and to those selling them services. Smith stands astride the place where real-world training and mission rehearsal meet, where soldiers first encounter the new weapons systems and equipment they must use, and where warfighters and their support teams run into samples of the crises they must learn to quell. His vantage point makes Smith's insights invaluable for all of us straining to understand and employ the tools of Web 2.0 and beyond.

Here's a bit I wrote about Smith in the Dec. 1, 2006 issue of Government Executive magazine under the headline "Grow Up Gamers" :

America's Army, the overwhelmingly successful video game recruiting tool, and Full Spectrum Warrior, the combat game built to military specs, spawned increased interest in the use of games for training across the military services and other agencies. But game-makers who view the government as just one big open wallet will be disappointed.

"The government is not going to adapt to work with gamers," says Roger Smith, chief scientist and chief technical officer for the Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation in Orlando, Fla. "We have an entire [simulation] industry base for the military - billions of dollars . . . just directed at us because the military has unique demands," Smith told an audience of game designers and potential buyers at the Serious Games Conference in Washington on Oct. 31.

It's not that the Pentagon and other agencies aren't interested in gamers' wares. It's that military buyers need "many military-unique pieces [that] are not in a closed-box game," Smith said. Having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in simulators in the mid- to late-1990s, the services aren't about to throw them away to adopt games, he added. Instead, they will continually modify simulators through the end of their useful lives, sometime around 2015.

Nevertheless, Defense recognizes that games are cheaper and provide more adaptable, richer and more realistic environments than traditional simulations. But the Pentagon doesn't want to buy finished games; it wants to buy pieces of games to build what it wants. "We need the pieces to be separable. . . . we need each piece to have an interface that is publicly exposed so you can glue them together yourself," Smith said. Military users also want game pieces to be mixable with the simulations made by traditional defense contractors. Deconstructing games also will enable competitive bidding on the parts.

Game-makers should expect to morph if they want military sales, Smith said: "Serious games are a temporary phenomenon for the military. Military users will create their own industry. Game companies will become traditional defense contractors . . . . a lot of companies will be acquired by big [defense contractors]." The big Defense firms aren't in the games market yet, he said, because they're not clear where simulations begin and games leave off, and they aren't sure how big the market will be. Smith can help them see the opportunity: "If game technology remains cheap, we can build devices [to train] medical people, logisticians, military police, linguists, maintenance people. Moving beyond the traditional simulation audience is where the real benefit lies."

Please join us on June 26.

Photo credit: BBN Technologies

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Purely for Fun

If you like a mix of the weird, the informative and the just plain fascinating early in the day, sign up for Boing Boing, which calls itself "The Directory of Wonderful Things." Today's first offering is just a quick clip by Peter Shankman (founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique marketing a PR strategy firm in New York) of the inside of a baggage screening machine through the eye of the new Flip camera.

My hunch is that these incredibly cheap, but really pretty darn high quality, video cameras will give a bigger boost to "citizen journalism" than even cell phones. Not only do they make shooting for YouTube a cinch, but they make video podcasting and blogging (vlogging) truly simply, too.

For example, here's how Al Tompkins of Poynteronline's "Al's Morning Meeting" column produces his video blog using a Flip.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Podcasting Plain English

More new heroes today. This time it's Sachi and Lee LeFever over at Common Craft, a Web-based company out of Seattle whose product is explanation, as they say on their homepage. They create the most beguiling videos, Paperworks they call them, to simply, quickly and directly explain things most of us don't really understand but want to.

Take, for example, RSS. Heck, I blog and I have a feed, but until today, I really didn't understand the concept of a reader and where the feed leads. Now I do, thanks to Sachi and Lee.

I simply love their work and the way they blend one of the oldest of forms of communication, pen and paper, with the newest, podcasting. For they have a show called The Common Craft Show, a collection of free, sharable videos explaining knotty concepts (RSS is one, as are Twitter, social networking, and wikis ) that they produce on their own time and make available on their Web site and YouTube. Lee's humming theme tune opens a number of the podcasts and it's his hands moving the cunning cutouts, scribbling in colored markers, erasing the whiteboard and sometimes sweeping away the old way of doing things with a "Booooo" and a downward pointing thumb.

Common Craft is a business, so it has clients, too, among them Google, which owns Blogger, through which these words are coming to you now. Google commissioned a great video explaining Google docs, for example.

What's so great about Lee and Sachi's work is its utter simplicity and accessibility. While I generally go ga-ga over visualization of data because it breaks down barriers to understanding, I am engaged by Paperworks for the same reason. Imagine Lee and Sachi's take on filling out tax forms, or global warming, or Social Security, or applying for a federal job! Pure poetry compared to what's out there now, I am certain.

So here's a huge huzzah for them and a hope that they'll soon begin turning their hands and eyes toward the inscrutable in government. What better subject for folks who say "our goal will always be to make videos that explain, enlighten and hopefully bring about a smile?"

I'll close with my favorite Paperworks video, one that deftly details a term becoming all the rage among government collaboration fans: wiki.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Virtual Therapy

Nearly 20 percent of service members home from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. That's 300,000 people, and only a bit more than half of them have sought help, according to the April 17 RAND Corporation study that unearthed the stats. Among the possible treatments is a modified video game born of an early Army effort to use such games and their virtual environments for training.

The novel PTSD therapy, called Virtual Iraq, is one of several receiving Defense funding. They've been covered by the media for some time, but now Virtual Iraq is the subject of the best in narrative journalism, a New Yorker story. When the best magazine in America devotes six pages to a subject, you know it has arrived, so the transformation of online video games to real life is now official.

Thing is, Virtual Iraq has it all over most games because it's more than 3D. It includes realistic sounds, smells and even the bone-shaking feel of real combat and real Iraq. Unless you're sitting in one of those gaming chairs with a haptic controller, you'll never truly "feel" the game. The closest most of us come is the buzzing and movement of the Wii controller. And even that can transport a player right into the tennis match or the sword fight, so imagine the reality of Virtual Iraq.

"When it’s only visual, it’s not really real—it’s just a video game—but when the ground starts vibrating and you smell smoke and hear the AK-47 firing, it becomes very real. I’d be shaking. When it was over, I’d go home and cry,” a soldier told New Yorker author Sue Halpern.

Albert Rizzo, a University of Southern California clinical psychologist, invented Virtual Iraq. As these things go in the small, hothouse environment of gaming platforms and virtual worlds, Rizzo was affiliated with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, created by the Army in 1999 to mix technologists versed in artificial intelligence, immersion and graphics with hotshots from gaming and Hollywood. He already was looking at virtual reality as a way of dealing with attention deficits in kids and memory loss in seniors when we invaded Iraq. He foresaw a long war and lots of traumatic stress. Around the same time, he came across Full Spectrum Warrior, a game created as an Army trainer by the institute. The rest was history. Or at least Halpern's story.

And in true virtual journalism fashion, her story is accompanied online by a video she narrates. It allows readers to become viewers and to experience, at least in part, a virtual world as therapeutic setting. Even without the head-mounted display and motion board, you can begin to see how wandering the virtual streets could take a soldier back. As the therapist adds remembered events, such as exploding cars and sniper fire, the "game" could easily turn to nightmare.

Photo Credit: Gamesetwatch

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Virtual Journalism, Finally

In the subtitle of this blog, I promised not only virtual government, but virtual journalism. I'm discovering and creating that phenomenon as I go, but I know it will involve multimedia storytelling. In that spirit, then, I offer you my very first video story. It's a little comedy about the 32-year-old federal technology show held in Washington, DC, every year. This year, I went down to the floor to search for someone who knew what the name, FOSE, a silly acronym, meant. On my quest, I happened upon some purveyors of virtual government products, as you'll see.

What I am doing here is called "backpack journalism." It's the new way many of us will perform the old craft of transmitting knowledge by telling stories. Where once we worked for vast media companies that specialized in one form of media--print, television, radio and recently Web--now we increasingly will be itinerant journalists for hire and self-publishers to the Web. We'll produce multimedia stories and information sites, mostly for the Web, and become jacks of all media--written, video, audio and, I predict, 3D/virtual. Thus my admittedly rough first foray into video.

To produce this I carried my own personal video camera around the FOSE exhibition hall for an afternoon. I had the germ of a unifying theme--the name of the show--but little more in mind as I began. I also had just begun using a Mac for the first time, purchased because it's clearly a superior vehicle for video editing and podcasting and the like, skills I'm rapidly having to acquire.

In a month's time, I became a very unskillful video editor, Mac user and videographer and shot, edited and produced this video, much as I started up this blog in January.

It's 2008. Soon, we'll all be publishers and newscasters. The question then becomes, how will we all decide which of us is reputable and worth listening to and watching. So, it's on to building a brand and winning an audience! Stay tuned!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Inside IARPA

The May issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine has a neat Q & A with the new chief of the intelligence community's far-out-spy-gadget unit, Lisa Porter, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA. IARPA is the intel version of DARPA, where, incidentally, Porter once worked. In the interview, she discusses the new tripartite organization for IARPA. Its three program offices are Smart Collection, Incisive Analysis, and Safe and Secure Operations. The agency lives in the Office of Science and Technology at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Readers might recall that IARPA recently announced it will be snooping around the virtual world via a foxy little project called Reynard. It's a study of emerging social dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games being conducted by the Incisive Analysis program.

Among Porter's points:

She is looking for directors for the three programs and people to run projects within them. IARPA is designed to do high-risk, high-payoff advanced intelligence research, so she is looking for "very smart people who understand what it takes not just to technically comprehend a problem but how to bring an idea to reality programmatically."

The Web site soon will carry instructions and forms for applying to run projects there.

IARPA will cooperate with DARPA and work closely with In-Q-Tel, the intelligence community's venture capital fund, even though In-Q-Tel's focus is near-term, high-risk problems.

IARPA's current location--on the University of Maryland campus, albeit in a fenced and guarded National Security Agency compound--and it's planned move to more accessible quarters are intended to signal the agency's openness to academics and others out side the intel world whose ideas and skills could help solve huge problems such as sorting through a tsunami of data, figuring out how to better target and winnow the data intel agencies collect and how to keep that information safe in the Web-enabled world.

Photo credit: IARPA via IEEE Spectrum Online