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Latest military-research boon: Game interface to rule them all

May possibly involve becoming disembodied head in jar

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Sometimes, people suggest that military boffins are a waste of the taxpayers' money. They either develop hideous weaponry calculated to increase the amount of misery in the world, or fool about inventing pointless gadgetry which wastes our soldiers' time.

Not today, though - today is one of those days when the brainboxes of the military-industrial complex seem set to come up with one of their successes, like integrated circuits or radar or jet engines - something with military applications, sure, but also a thing of beauty in itself which will enrich the lives of us all.

In this case, to be specific, the military boffins in question are hot on the trail of what promises to be the greatest gaming interface ever seen - one which would leave such unsatisfactory compromises as the Kinect, Wiimote, PlayStation Move etc mouldering in the dustbin of history.

Its name? "BioNav", short for Biological Navigation. The idea is simple: you're a soldier in an immersive simulated training environment - an Afghan village, the snows of the Hindu Kush, wherever it may be. Naturally enough your arms and hands and voice, as they would be in the real world, are fully taken up managing your weapons, sensors and communications.

It is wholly unsatisfactory to have to control your avatar-self's movement using normal interface or even gesture-based controls: you should be able to run, leap or otherwise navigate about virtually without needing to do so physically.

That's where BioNav comes in. As described in a recent US government announcement (pdf):

Potential applications of this technology may include immersive 3D warfighter training... In a simulation training environment, for example, it would be advantageous for users to control avatar navigation while concurrently performing manual tasks such as weapons training.

Just how this would be achieved isn't specified, though it is specified that for such applications "non-invasive methodologies" such as "electromagnetic, galvanic, and behavioral" monitoring of users should be used. Bandwidth, it is specified, should be enough "to at least indicate waypoints in real time" and "error rate must be low enough to overcome potential disruption by noise associated with simultaneous body movements and external electrical interference".

The wonder-sim interface could also be used for controlling complex military robots, allowing a user to handle the robot's navigation while his or her hands and voice remained available for payload tasks or similar. And in fact if non-invasive means make the problem too hard, interested contractors should consider invasive ones anyway:

Respondents are also welcome to address both invasive and non-invasive approaches geared toward clinical populations such as paraplegics and lower extremity amputees.

It isn't specified in this latter case whether the paraplegic or limbless operators of the robots would handle their machines across a remote link or from armoured compartments within them. Various types of robot vehicle - for instance the 600-tonne Godzilla lorry, an unmanned tank or combat aircraft, or perhaps an uprated "Bigdog" motorised war-walker unit - could carry their operators on board, so saving on bandwidth and electronic-warfare issues.

Naturally there might be a temptation on the part of the designing boffins here to further reduce the amount of space and weight taken up by the operator, in extreme cases reducing him or her to nothing more than a head or completely disembodied brain in a bubbling nutrient jar.

As we now seem to be talking about heads in jars controlling powerful robotic war machines, it will be no surprise for regular readers to find that the agency behind BioNav is none other than our old friend DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

No doubt the idea of sending America's many injured veterans back to war as robot operators - or even seeking volunteers to undergo surgery to suit them for the role - is far-fetched. But we might at least get some kind of brain-reading hat interface out of this, able to translate our desires into movement commands and leaving our hands free for our guns to finally deliver a true First Person Shooter experience. ®

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