When real life user interfaces begin to emulate video games
It used to be that video game creators tried to emulate real life experiences. Remember Microsoft's Flight Simulator? It was about as complicated to fly those virtual planes as it is to fly real planes (I spent more time crashing my airliners than landing them as a kid), and that was the goal. But what happens when that paradigm gets flipped on its head - when the real life user interfaces model themselves on rapidly evolving video game standards? I had a first hand taste of this at a recent defense electronics shows I attended - and even got to take the joystick and learn just how easy robot-wranglin' can be at the surreal VR dawn of the 21st century.
If you've played a newer first-person-shooter style video game, you know how powerful the graphics engines are and how immersive the experience is. In a lineage descending from classics such as Doom on through the the most recent Call of Duty or Halo releases, first-person-shooter games have evolved into marvels of 3D graphics rendering, allowing for ultra smooth movement through incredibly detailed environments that draw the player in so well that experiences such as a fall or wild charge down a winding corridor generate actual physical sensations. At the touch a button on the computer keyboard or controller device, you can toggle visual perspectives and control not only forward, backward, left and right movement, but also left and right "strafing" movements, crouching, leaping and in some cases flying or swimming with perfect altitude and depth control.
So what does this embarrassment of riches in entertainment technology mean in aerospace and defense? Well for one thing, it means that the commercial game environment has had generations to explore not only virtual environments, but astoundingly intuitive user interface for control for navigating those environments.
Which brings me to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) show in Washington, DC, our Military & Aerospace Electronics Team attended last month, and back to Flight Simulator. I found as a kid - not being a pilot or someone inclined wanted to read a full length instruction manual just to play a game - the planes in Flight Simulator to be difficult to fly. At AUVSI, M&AE chief editor John Keller and I watched a small drone helicopter - the Hornet Micro UAS - demonstration. After the demonstration we visited with the helicopter's maker Adaptive Flight and we got to see how the vehicle was flown. Hint - you didn't need four hands and six feet to operate all the pedals and levers and sticks and whatnot. You used one joystick and a keyboard. The 12-year-old version of you could drop in from the past and fly this thing with about one minute of instruction, no manual required. You'd know exactly how to do it, because it worked just like a video game. In fact, that's pretty much what the UAV's maker says in the product literature: "Advanced flight control technology makes flying the Hornet as easy as navigating a video game with take-offs and landings at the push of a button."
A little bit later that day I was chatting with Andrew Borene at the Recon Robotics booth. Recon makes a tiny little robot called the Recon Scout IR. It's basically a cylinder about the size of a 2.5 lb dumbbell with rubbery wheels on either end and a couple of flexible antennas sticking out. The idea is you can lob this little guy up onto the roof of a building, say, and then drive it around reconnoitering. Andrew gave me one of the robots and let me throw it onto the roof of the booth, which was designed to look like a desert outpost. He then handed me the controller - once again a single joystick was all you needed to drive. The vehicle was designed to self-right and then get on with business, shooting video automatically and transmitting it back to a screen in the controller. Drive into a dark room on the roof? The camera automatically switches to an IR view. I drove a robot about this size in a video game a long time - James Bond Golden Eye - and I say with absolute conviction that the video game version was actually a bit harder to operate. That's how good these things are getting.
So while soldiers are using "serious" games for training and simulation from the cockpit to the battlefield (read this article by M&AE's Courtney Howard for a great overview of this), it's also clear that elements of these games are blurring the line between reality and virtual reality in the other direction as well. And it's fascinating to wonder what impact having grown up in the deeply immersive, super-detailed environments of contemporary video games will have on the engineers and developers of the future in terms of the direction from which they instinctively approach user interface challenges.
Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell's Aerospace and Defense Media Group, which include Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, and Avionics Europe. Email him at email@example.com.