Much of the U.S. military's younger generation has grown up playing video games that constantly tell players how well they're doing on the virtual battlefield — whether it's the screen turning red to warn of low health or displays showing the world's top-scoring players based on reviving fallen friends and killing enemies with certain weapons. A U.S. Army weapons engineer thinks that, with the right technologies, such gaming-world awareness could become real for tomorrow's soldiers.
U.S. soldiers could go into battle wearing "Google Glasses" that warn of exhaustion levels by changing their vision's tint from green ("optimal") to yellow or red ("danger"), said David Musgrave, a manager at the U.S. Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. Tank commanders and helicopter pilots might see a kill ratio for how many enemy vehicles they've destroyed compared to the rest of their unit, or even to the entire Army.
"The same energy and pride that goes into climbing the rankings of 'Call of Duty' multiplayer could be turned towards higher soldier performance, whether that entails killing tanks, delivering fuel or saving lives," Musgrave said.
That idea remains decades away from implementation, even if U.S. Army commanders decide to support it. But Musgrave hopes to achieve the more practical plan of tracking weapons performance and soldier behaviors — a first step toward providing the real-time awareness that could eventually motivate soldiers the way games motivate players.
From games to war
Weapon malfunctions on the battlefield can make a life-or-death difference to the U.S. military. Yet Musgrave and his colleagues must rely on written reports and anecdotes from soldiers who may struggle to recall all the important details of when, where and how a weapon system failed or performed incorrectly.
"Ideally, I'd be able to go to some central database and pull up all the recent failures of that [weapon's] part and relevant history," Musgrave told TechNewsDaily. "Unfortunately, right now, at best we can get someone who used the system to try to vaguely remember if he'd seen the error before."
A frustrated Musgrave found inspiration in his video game hobby. He was watching a weekly Web series called ExtraCredits when the show discussed how game companies tracked the behavior of players inside virtual worlds. Intrigued, he began running Google searches and discovered a presentation from Bioware, the maker of popular games, such as the "Mass Effect" trilogy, with statistics about how many players chose certain actions. [Virtual Behavior Labs Discover What Gamers Want]
Musgrave began imagining the possibility of automatically gathering such data in real life. He envisioned hundreds of self-propelled howitzers, huge cannons mounted on tank-like tracks, reporting back their status, history and performance from around the world. (Musgrave is project lead for fire-control software development on the M109 Paladin, the U.S. Army's latest 155 mm howitzer).
Self-reporting weapons could help engineers troubleshoot hardware or software problems, even if the malfunctions only happen half a dozen times over a weapon program's lifespan. That's because Army engineers could sort through the data pile, looking at factors like time or temperature, to find what factors might be related to the problem.
"Taken on a case-by-case basis, a root cause may be impossible to find," Musgrave explained. "But if we can pull a lot of data together, we may be able to find trends in the chaos."
An even more futuristic system could give the U.S. Army statistics that gamers already expect from their online, multiplayer sessions, such as average hit rates or the time required to engage enemy targets with a certain weapon. If the tracking extends to soldier behavior, it could even identify what Army units might need more training on a specific weapon.
Such weapons-performance tracking might even inspire innovations in battlefield tactics or weapons design.
"For instance, let's say our shoulder-fired missile has a great thermal scope with high-power zoom," Musgrave said. "Then, let's say we notice that soldiers sometimes turn it on and use the optics as a spotting or recon device instead of just finding a target for a missile. This would be a great new way to use the system and something that the original designers might not have considered."
Still, tracking weapons performance and soldier behavior in the real world presents a much more difficult challenge than tracking virtual actions in a video game. Musgrave wants to avoid loading soldiers down with more hardware or the need to learn new procedures; so, his ideal starter system would piggyback on existing Army weapons software and focus on collecting just a few data points.
The Army may eventually have a "tactical Internet" connecting all its soldiers and vehicles, a system that could report statistics in real-time and provide the foundation for the "gamification" of the battlefield. Yet the technology already exists to make a primitive data-reporting system a reality within a decade, Musgrave said.
"Maybe we won't have the live feedback that BioWare gets on who's playing 'Mass Effect,' but the Army could have something very useful in a very short amount of time," Musgrave said. "If we can keep the idea simple, affordable and non-intrusive, I think this could actually happen."
This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow TechNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @jeremyhsu. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.
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