Army solicits soldier feedback on smart-phone technologies

Smart-phone technologies, already familiar to many young soldiers who are once and future gamers, might be changing the face of warfare. 

Deployed commanders are pleading for more devices equipped with minicomputers and programmed with situational intelligence and training applications. Only a few dozen are now available overseas.


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Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Capabilities Integration Center, is so excited about smart-phone technologies that, in a recent Army blogger discussion, he said, “If we can figure out the smart cost/benefit way of doing this, it probably makes sense in the long run” to give every soldier a smart phone.

In a departure from the military’s use-it-and-like-it mindset, the Defense Department is studying the human factors involved in making such a shift — from the troops’ perspective. Planners and designers want to hear directly from the troops about what works well and what they think needs improvement. All the 85 smart-phone applications now in test were derived from soldier feedback.

Two enterprises are vested in this learn from and with the troops effort. The central one is the Army’s Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) program.

Michael McCarthy is the CSDA project's co-lead. He said soldier feedback from pilot project tests at Fort Bliss, Texas, and from limited in-theater deployments is “a very essential part of our technology evaluation process.” Soldiers are queried formally and informally, focus-group style; observer-controllers collate their responses.

A CSDA blog site encourages more ad hoc feedback. Soldiers can also use their phones to write unfiltered descriptions of their experience. “Soldiers are expecting the same quality of products they’re used to from the civilian side,” McCarthy said. And they vote with their attention.

In a test of one company's game-quality video-training tools, testers were amazed at the students’ high scores. Exams were readministered, with the same results. It turned out the troops had continued to use the devices outside the classroom during breaks and back in the barracks in the evening. Because they found the training interesting and engaging, they voluntarily practiced on their own time. Conversely, a senior officer who asked a young soldier about another firm’s training solution was told, “Sir, it sucks!” In fact, the graphics were immature and poorly designed.

Soldier concerns about mobile war computing include the need for shock- and water-resistant cases; tablet touch-screen ease; quick access to a clean, ergonomic button layout; and options for physical placement. The consensus is for external mini-keyboards, easily hot-pluggable via USB or with Bluetooth connections. Troops prefer an alphanumeric row because so much of their input is numeric; some prefer the soft, on-screen keyboard.

Smart-phone technologies are a logical outgrowth of the prevailing persistent learning environment ethos. As McCarthy pointed out, the drawback of most distance courses is that “60 percent of Army soldiers don’t have unrestricted access to a military computer” during training — and even fewer have it once deployed. Moving training technology to the smart phone means “a soldier sitting at a forward operating base in Afghanistan can use his downtime to go to the phone, Android tablet or whatever, log in and continue his predeployment online training from anywhere in the world, at any time.”

In addition to the Fort Bliss studies, at the Signal Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., a small group of soldiers experimented with writing apps for iPhones and Android-based phones. The result was about half a million downloads by civilians or soldiers, McCarthy said.

Some applications are for troops’ amusement, and others are suggestions aimed at helping comrades in the deployed force. Soldier-assisted apps include support for land navigation, warfighting skills such as fire discipline, security and counter-IED ops. There is a also translation tool, and a virtual soldier app teaches missile emplacement basics. Geospatial mapping and intelligence tools are being considered, despite file size problems.

To help craft more nonoperational, soldier-assisted training applications, McCarthy and his colleagues are turning to digital curriculum specialists at DOD's higher education institutes: the Naval Postgraduate School, Army Command and General Staff College and National Defense University. Future procurement and fielding plans for smart-phone technologies are pending the results of CSDA and related Army pilot projects.

The Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center is tackling similar themes.

Raymond Schulze, chief of the Command and Control Directorate at CERDEC’s Information Management Branch at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., said smart phones are “a leap-ahead technology offering soldiers myriad ... capabilities to satisfy their need to share voice and data wirelessly.”

Schulze said the smart phones enable soldiers to download and store translation software and streaming video from unmanned aerial vehicles and view position and location information. “The [size, weight and power] advantages are extremely consistent with the soldier's mobile, man-portable requirements,” he said.

In July, soldiers evaluated organic LED, wrist-worn, flexible-display demonstrators and smart phones during CERDEC's integrated capabilities event held at Fort Dix, N.J.

“In general, soldiers liked the streaming video on the devices," Schulze said. "CERDEC will investigate integrating the flexible displays with the smart phones to improve [their] ruggedness. [The challenge] isn’t trying to replicate desktop versions of applications on a smart phone but understanding who will be using the system and where ... and what specifically are the requirements.”

CERDEC’s considerations include: 

  • Can a display screen be read in very bright and low light environments? 
  • Is the device surface single-touch, multi-touch or voice-controlled? He added that the latter “allows for hands-free operation but may require increased training.” 
  • Is the screen size large enough for users to view maps with all required data but not so large that weight and power become problems?

Schulze said “a commander working on a tablet version of a command and control application in a tactical operations center has different requirements from a dismounted soldier using a smart phone in the field. To be successful, we need to understand these different requirements while leveraging this rapidly evolving technology.”

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