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Set Cammos to Vibrate

by david_axe on June 1, 2006

I think we can all agree a vibrating cell phone in your pocket means good times. Now imagine the same buzzing sensation across your entire body, communicating tactical data. A tap here could mean a bad guy approaching; a pulse there, someone more friendly. That’s what the Navy is aiming for, in its next line of ‘combat attire’.
TactaVest_1.jpgThere’s an old English saying that “too many technologies interfere with operations and reduce the overall effectiveness of the soldier already overloaded by audio-visual cues” — and I think it applies here. Marines and soldiers are receiving more information than ever and could soon be in danger of overload — even before they get the next-gen, fully-wired cammos.
So how to get around the processing jam? Some folks in Florida think the tongue could be the key. The Navy, on the other hand, is placing its bets on haptics — the skin’s sense of touch. So the service is on the look-out for:
”(an) unobtrusive, real time, bi-directional communication system that can be embedded in the combat attire of the counter-terrorism dismount warfighter for the capture of individual location and action information with subsequent presentation to the unit commander and other team members via the tactile modality”.
“If the unit commander has the information about which team members are walking, running, standing, prone, kneeling, and/or firing weapons, he will be able to make well informed critical decisions based on a significantly better understanding of the situation at any given time. Even with the lack of physiological monitoring, these data could indicate potential causalities (e.g., prone, no movement, not firing). Additionally, direction of enemy, ammunition depletion, and severity of enemy engagements could be ascertained.“

In other words, it may soon be possible for budding Bene Gesserits, with appropriate training, to receive volumes of material via the sensitive parts of the body. Depending on location, thermal and/or pressure switches could transmit every command a unit leader could wish for. Exporting the data into existing virtual environments would allow exact replications of operations to take place — an obvious bonus for training.
Robert Lindeman has been working in the field for the past several years and has succesfully tested both a basic “vibrotactile” armband “sending simple signals to dismounted infantry during live-fire exercises on an obstacle course” and “upper-body vibrotactile feedback system for training Marines in building clearing exercises in VR”. The ‘Tactavest’ relays cues via bluetooth to a central controlling ‘TactaBox’ which activates the necessary stimuli to orient the user — Tacterrific, you’ll agree.
The vest is an example of basic directional control, but consider a vibrotactile belt for waypoint navigation or a vibrotactile suit for helicopter pilots to combat spatial disorientation and you can predict the benefits for all services. For example, existing commercial applications already include: Balance prostheses, hearing aids, medical training and gaming systems.
Personally, I think my underpants would provide their own haptic/olfactory warning to my ‘battle buddies’ in a combat situation. So, for now, I’ll pass on haptics, thanks all the same.
Steven Snell

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