Microsoft, Army highlight Surface 2.0 at multitouch working group
February 9, 2011
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Microsoft discussed its latest touch-screen technology during a quarterly working group meeting here with the Army's leading multitouch researchers and developers, Jan. 25.
The Surface 2.0, which was introduced in January, is a lighter, more portable unit that features a larger flat-screen computer with a new detection method; its bulkier predecessor relied on a camera and projector, said Phil West, a principal technologist with Microsoft.
While no Surface 2.0 hardware has been released to date, the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's communications-electronics center, or CERDEC, has early access to the software and development kits thanks to its Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, with Microsoft.
Development work has begun on Surface 2.0 projects. The newer hardware will be considered by the Army when it becomes available, West said.
The Multitouch Mission Command Working Group, which is hosted by CERDEC, brought together more than two dozen organizations from government, industry and academia for discussions and live demonstrations using the existing Surface 1.0 hardware.
"This is a prime research target for both military applications and the computing industry as a whole," said Robert Beckinger, project lead for the CERDEC Command and Control Multitouch Enabled Technology (COMET) team. "In the years to come, the user experience will move beyond the keyboard and mouse, and will bring new possibilities for how the Warfighter collaborates and gets the job done."
Among those possibilities, officials said, are Soldiers using smart phones to thumb through critical information on an upcoming mission, and commanders using electronic "sand tables" to plan and analyze their battles.
"We see several capabilities in multitouch technology," said Brett Burland, chief of the Science and Technology branch, Mission Command Battle Lab, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "If battle command on-the-move ever becomes the kind of thing we want it to be, it will be based on a tablet-style computer with touch kinds of inputs and a lot of widgets on the screen so the commander or staff officer can select the kind of information he wants to see, create that environment on his tablet then use it to make decisions from. It seems like the way of the future for collaboration and battle command on-the-move."
Topics ranged from customizing mobile applications for different tasks, to researching gesture recognition and improving the abilities of unmanned air and ground vehicles to collect information in urban environments.
The session also included an update on the COMET Framework - a government-owned, open-source, application-driven environment that allows touch-enabled apps to incrementally add features and capabilities on platforms of all sizes, from a tabletop to hand-held phones.
For example, a tool displaying a map of the battlefield can be populated with position reports generated by a different application. A timeline tool can then be layered in to illustrate changes and historical trends as users scroll back and forth. Unlike a paper map, the electronic version can store all of the information for future use.
"The framework can handle data between tools developed separately from one another, and the tools can be combined to create a new and unique solution," said Michael Sullivan, deputy project leader for COMET, which was developed by CERDEC C2D through the CRADA with Microsoft.
This agreement represents only the second joint research project Microsoft has throughout the federal government and the Department of Defense.
The initial CRADA between Microsoft and CERDEC C2D was signed in 2009 and focused on the applicability of multitouch technologies to command and control systems. The agreement was extended in 2010 and now includes hand-held devices, apps development and cognitive-based software.
At the core of COMET is a powerful combination: providing Soldiers the advantages of a digital environment, while incorporating the easy-to-use elements of hands-on tools. For example, objects on a screen can be "grabbed" and manipulated as if they were real-world, solid objects. Users can zoom in and out, "drag and drop" icons and draw freehand - all with the touch of a fingertip.
To transfer data from one medium to another - such as from a smart phone to a table or vice versa - a user simply needs to set the phone on the table.
"We're trying to give you more physical control over your digital information, so it's easier to move that data around and manipulate it. You'll just be able to carry it with you so you have that data available on the fly and use physical gestures to move it from one platform to another," said Nicholas Palmer, an architect for the COMET project.
"We're also focusing on extensibility. As engineers, we don't want to say, 'this is the app you always need to use for the iPad.' We want to provide those tools and capabilities and then let the Warfighter choose what they need to accomplish their specific mission," Palmer said.
To help mature the framework, the COMET team has partnered with organizations throughout government, military, industry and academia to develop both generic tools and specific solutions, as well as collect Warfighter feedback.
The working group, which is open to anyone in government, industry or academia who is interested in leveraging multitouch technology in the military domain, has grown exponentially over the past year. It now includes more than two dozen organizations, focusing on domains outside of Command and Control (C2), such as Network Operations, mobile solutions and medical applications.
"There's a lot of energy here and it gives us the opportunity to see who else out there is working on similar issues so we can collaborate and not re-invent the wheel," said Cynthia Neal, a logistics management specialist with the U.S. Army Logistics Innovation Agency who attended the meeting.
"We're an innovative agency, and that's why we're interested in what's being done in multitouch technology," Neal said. "A lot of the projects that my organization works with can be easily integrated into this technology. I think it can be applied to help the Soldier in regards to logistical C2 by improving decision support making and logistical readiness from the ground up."
The COMET team hopes to expand the scope of the working group beyond the Army and gain participation from the Navy and Air Force as well.
"We want to garner better collaboration and partnerships across the multitouch community," said Michael P. Anthony, chief of the C2D Mission Command Division.
"Our goal is to bring collaborative mission planning to commanders' fingertips. One of the challenges we face, though, is the current form factor. We need to find a way to mature the technology from larger platforms to something that we can get out to the field. And that's one of the things we're all working on," Anthony said.
The next working group is scheduled for June at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Claire Heininger is a staff writer for Symbolic Systems, Inc., supporting the Army's Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications - Tactical (PEO C3T) MilTech Solutions Office.
Edric Thompson of U.S. Army CERDEC Public Affairs contributed to this article.