FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. (Army News Service, June 5, 2009) Aca,!" The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center recently signed a cooperative research and development agreement with Microsoft to share research in support of developing multi-touch technology for the Warfighter.

Although the U.S. government represents Microsoft's single biggest customer, the agreement is only the second joint-research project Microsoft has throughout the federal government and the Department of Defense.

Much of the tasks will be executed by the Command and Control Multi-touch Enabled Technology team. COMET is an effort to research the applicability of multi-touch technologies to command and control systems, said Cyndi Carpenter, systems engineer.

"We became interested in researching the problems associated with developing a face-to-face, digitally-assisted analog collaboration tool," Carpenter said. "In essence, we were looking to explore what an 'electronic sand table' might look like or how we could build electronic maps that would behave like normal maps, but have special capabilities."

Traditional collaboration is implemented with paper maps, grease pens, acetate layers and sand tables. While these tools are intuitive and can work exceptionally well to get a point across, they are ineffective at recording, saving and transmitting information and are incapable of providing automated assistance or analysis, said Nicholas Palmer, COMET technical lead.

"In the COMET vision, commanders and planners would gather around a multi-touch surface and interact with computer simulations of familiar analog planning tools, such as maps and acetate overlays, by touch: no keyboard or mouse would be necessary," he explained.

Commanders could zoom in for additional detail, or they could change from raster to vector maps. Moreover, since the environment is multi-user, multiple people could simultaneously contribute to activities such as war gaming, rehearsal or after-action reviews.

Due to the lack of commercially available equipment, C2D initially built the required hardware and software for the multi-touch research. After the proof-of-concept model was successful, the project gained traction. C2D demonstrated COMET to Microsoft, and after seeing the prototype, Microsoft agreed to enter into a CRADA.

"Getting our perspective as users will be beneficial to Microsoft and getting their commercial perspective in our environment is beneficial for us," said Gary W. Blohm, director of CERDEC. "We know that we need to be adaptive and continually improve our abilities to improve our capabilities and our software products. You put your head down for five minutes and the world has changed - it really does happen that fast. Our intent is to stay at the forefront."

Microsoft surface units are at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., Fort Monmouth, N.J. and Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the Army Research Institute has purchased the unit for study as well.

COMET now has its own budget and a full-time development staff, and C2D has also built COMET software for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance On-The-Move Event 09, the largest integrated technology demonstration of its kind.

E09, which began June 1 at Fort Dix, N.J., incorporates various live communications, sensor and battle command systems augmented with virtual and constructive simulation using organic, high-performance computing assets and distributed connectivity.

"Participating in E09 will give us Soldier feedback and comments early in the development so that changes can be made," Ron Szymanski, C2D technical lead for COBRA, said. Aca,!A"This will result in a better developed tool for the Soldiers when they are finally fielded. It will also provide a real-world, relevant environment to help us evaluate the prototypes: communications systems don't work all the time, and bandwidth is at a premium.Aca,!A?

(Edric Thompson works with the CERDEC Public Affairs & Outreach Office.)