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Army Expands Microsoft R&D Partnership

The year-old partnership has already led to promising developments using Microsoft Surface multi-touch computers and will now expand to use Microsoft's Project Natal controller-free system designed for Xbox 360.

The Army's research and development arm is making good use of its status as Microsoft's largest single customer by recently extending and expanding a research and development partnership that's already led to some promising multi-touch development using Microsoft's Surface multi-touch computers.

The work, being done by the command and control directorate at the Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), constitutes the Army's second research and development partnership with Microsoft, and gives the Army both early access to Microsoft technologies under development and to researchers at Microsoft Research.

"This agreement establish[es] a working environment for the conduct of tests, demonstrations, experiments and exploratory interchange," said Mike Anthony, chief of the command and control directorate's advanced applications branch. The agreement gives CERDEC access to Microsoft's research before it becomes public, and, Anthony says, creates an improved feedback loop so that Microsoft can better meet current and future Army needs.

The partnership began last year as with multi-touch research, which further developed a project called Command and Control Multitouch Enabled Technologies (COMET) by enabling the Army to leverage Microsoft Surface and Microsoft Research's multi-touch expertise. Last month, the effort was given a multi-year extension and tacked on a number of additional Microsoft products.

According to command and control directorate computer scientist Nick Palmer, one of the broader goals of the effort, in addition to increasing usability and productivity, is to decrease costly technology training requirements by relying more heavily on natural, intuitive user interfaces.

As for the usage scenarios, "multi-touch can be beneficial in any situation that requires interactive technology with multiple people," Palmer said in an interview. An online video of a COMET demonstration shows officers manipulating what are ostensibly battlefield maps and annotating a surveillance video.

As proof of the concept's possible real-world applications, CERDEC has developed scenarios around officers developing battle and mission plans and intelligence analysts performing link analysis on enemies and their contacts, and Palmer said he foresees additional possible uses in planning communications networks.

CERDEC is working to integrate COMET with current command and control systems and plans to show off some of its work at an annual Army technology demonstration this year in order to get soldiers' feedback. It's also getting feedback from the Army's training arm, which is carrying out a multi-touch display study of its own, and has relationships with both the 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. However, operational deployment, especially on the battlefield, remains distant barring the development of more rugged multi-touch displays.

The COMET project is also beginning to develop an extensible, cross-platform, gesture-based application framework that will eventually allow Army developers and third parties to create multi-touch or other gesture-based applications.

Soon, the COMET work will also expand to Microsoft's Project Natal, which is part of the expanded research and development partnership. Project Natal is a controller-free system designed for Microsoft's Xbox 360 that employs cameras as well as gesture, voice, and facial recognition technology that can simultaneously track up to four users. "Eventually, these efforts will lead to gesture-based interaction with data a la what was done in the movie Minority Report," Palmer said.

In fact, COMET's successes have led to more than just the addition of Project Natal to the research and development effort. In addition, CERDEC has also begun to look into how it can better use SharePoint, Office Communications Server and Windows 7 Mobile. The partnership also allows the Army to leverage future operating system and cloud computing technologies. If the project continues to breed successes, Anthony says additional staff and budget will be added to the effort.

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