How Digital “Sand Tables” Will Guide Future Military Strategy

Throughout history, the use of sand tables has been common practice in rehearsing military strategy in the field. Built on piles of sand with scale models of operational units, the sand table has provided a basic, yet effective means for war gaming. For the U.S. Army, however, the times are changing.

1st Lt. Aaron T. Tran, HHB 1-37th FA uses a sand table to help his team visualize his plan to assault an objective hilltop at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery organized the eight-station, 13-hour Mangoday event to physically and mentally challenge the battalion’s leaders, improve teamwork, and build esprit de corps. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Corey M. Ray, 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
Today, military strategy and war gaming are conducted with a wealth of operational information that is constantly being collected and updated, from live video feeds to sensor and geospatial data. To support situational awareness in this modern environment, modern platforms are needed to allow users to effectively capture and interact with this information through a single point of view. This is a core vision behind the Army’s Command and Control Multitouch Enabled Technology (COMET) program, which aims to bring the sand table into the digital age.

Building a 21st Century Sand Table

To make this vision a reality, the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and En gineering Center (CERDEC), which leads the COMET program, joined Microsoft in 2009 for a research and development initiative focused on the use of multi-touch technologies to support command and control systems. As pictured, the result of this unprecedented research project was the development of a digital, multi-touch command and control interface. Using Surface — Microsoft’s touch-enabled display technology — the COMET interface is, in every practical sense, an advanced upgrade of the low-tech sand table. Designed to support the needs of the modern warfighter, the COMET interface provides several critical features to users in the field such as:

• Real-time Data: The COMET interface replaces traditional, static information sources such as paper notebooks and maps, acetate layovers, and physical models with a completely digital platform. More importantly, the COMET interface enables access to a broad set of live information sources such as sensor data, digital mapping, and video feeds. These capabilities provide users with a much more realtime and accurate picture of their operating environments.

• Interaction and Analysis: Using a variety of custom apps and widgets, the COMET interface also enables users to interact with situational data on a much deeper level. Leveraging these tools, users can manipulate displays and customize views and data sources to support the mission at hand.

• Intuitive Interface: Using a keyboard and mouse while in-theater is far from practical for the warfighter. The COMET interface puts this control at the warfighter’s fingertips with intuitive touch screen controls, allowing them to open ‘apps’ and move and manipulate data. COMET’s easy-to-use interface helps improve warfighter effectiveness and acceptance, while also reducing costly training requirements by making the user experience as intuitive as possible.

Moving to a Broader “Sand Box” Framework

The COMET interface is a multi-touch surface that enables commanders and planners to interact with computer simulations of familiar analog planning tools, such as maps and acetate overlays, without using a keyboard or mouse. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Since the initial cooperative research and development agreement between Microsoft and CERDEC, CERDEC has been working to expand COMET, taking it beyond a single-device form-factor to support broader information sharing and mobile applications. In realizing this vision, CERDEC has created a common framework for COMET, allowing multiple systems to feed data into the framework and enabling the COMET interface to be displayed across a variety of devices, ranging from large touch displays to consumer-style smart phones.

In essence, CERDEC’s new focus has widened the scope of the digital sand table to support a broader “sand box” concept, in which users operating within this environment can share and interact with a rich set of information sources served up by the COMET framework. This expansion of COMET has huge implications for the future of military strategy and war gaming. There may soon be a future in which mobile warfighters and command and control personnel collaborate using tablets, smart phones, and digital sand tables to share real-time situational data and plan/modify operations — all made possible by the COMET framework.

However, there are a few challenges that must be addressed in order to realize such a future, particularly around defining how information is shared across the COMET framework. As new systems are integrated into the COMET framework, officials must set forth policies governing what information and tools can be shared across the framework, as well as what types of devices can connect to it.

From a technical perspective, a practical challenge that must also be addressed is matching the information that is shared across the COMET framework with the unique display/information requirements of various users and their devices. For example, while a large digital map displays well on a command and control digital sand table, a smart phone user in the field may not be able to display the same information effectively. These types of considerations must continue to be addressed so that the COMET framework provides a seamless, accessible user experience across any platform, which is critical to its continued use and adoption.

What’s Next for the COMET Program

SSG Frank Geitz talks with 2LT Morgan Campell, a Soldier in 4th Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, about the possible situations arising from a sniper attack during an after action review. Geitz uses a sand table to illustrate his point. (Photo: Cheryl Rodewig)
Today, the COMET framework consists of an open source, application-driven environment that supports both Android and Microsoft Windows Phone 7 platforms. The framework was designed to have an open architecture to help keep pace with the latest advancements in commercial technologies and to support the various devices that may one day be demanded by users. For the future, Microsoft and CERDEC are examining how to better incorporate tools like Microsoft SharePoint into COMET to extend critical collaboration capabilities to the warfighter. This includes support for linking direct communication via instant messaging, video presence and VoIP calling. Eventually, CERDEC wants to enable COMET to leverage other technologies, like the cloud, and release the software for other Army organizations and third parties to develop ‘apps’ for the COMET framework.

However, one of COMET’s most fascinating possibilities may soon be realized through CERDEC’s efforts to integrate Microsoft’s Kinect Natural User Interface (NUI) within COMET. Introducing an entirely new type of interface, Kinect would allow users to manipulate situational intelligence on a screen through physical gestures and motion. For example, using NUI technology, a warfighter in the field could use a simple projector to project the COMET interface onto a blank canvass or hanging sheet. Kinect would then translate the warfighter’s motions onto the COMET interface, allowing the warfighter to move and manipulate COMET data as if they were actually touching the screen. Based on COTS technology, this highly interactive and scalable interface would require minimal investment to establish, allowing users to quickly and cost-effectively share situational information served up through the COMET framework.

In addition to new gesture controls, another exciting capability being developed is the use of lightweight, durable ‘flex screens’ that connect to the COMET framework. Using this technology, the warfighter could literally roll out a screen onto any surface and begin interacting with the COMET interface to analyze situational awareness information.

This article was written by Phil West, Senior Technology Architect, Microsoft Public Sector, Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, WA). For more information, Click Here .