In the trenchesDARPA looking for a game interface to end all interfaces

Published 24 November 2010

A soldier in the field has his or her hands and voice fully taken up managing their weapons, sensors, and communications; DARPA wants to help: the Pentagon’s push-the-envelope research unit asks for idea on how to develop an interface which would allow soldiers to run, leap, or otherwise navigate about virtually without needing to do so physically

U.S. military researchers are developing what promises to be the greatest gaming interface ever seen — one which would leave compromises such as the Kinect, Wiimote, PlayStation Move, etc. way behind.

The BioNav, short for Biological Navigation, has a simple idea behind it: you are a soldier in an immersive simulated training environment — an Afghan village, the snows of the Hindu Kush, wherever it may be. Your arms and hands and voice, as they would be in the real world, are fully taken up managing your weapons, sensors, and communications.

Lewis Page writes that it is thus unsatisfactory to have to control your avatar-self’s movement using normal interface or even gesture-based controls: you should be able to run, leap, or otherwise navigate about virtually without needing to do so physically.

This is where BioNav comes in. As described in a recent U.S. government announcement (.pdf):

Potential applications of this technology may include immersive 3D warfighter training… In a simulation training environment, for example, it would be advantageous for users to control avatar navigation while concurrently performing manual tasks such as weapons training.

Pages notes that just how this would be achieved is not specified, though it is specified that for such applications “non-invasive methodologies” such as “electromagnetic, galvanic, and behavioral” monitoring of users should be used. Bandwidth, it is specified, should be enough “to at least indicate waypoints in real time” and “error rate must be low enough to overcome potential disruption by noise associated with simultaneous body movements and external electrical interference”.


The wonder-sim interface could also be used for controlling complex military robots, allowing a user to handle the robot’s navigation while his or her hands and voice remained available for payload tasks or similar. If non-invasive means make the problem too hard, interested contractors should consider invasive ones anyway:

Respondents are also welcome to address both invasive and non-invasive approaches geared toward clinical populations such as paraplegics and lower extremity amputees.

Page writes that in this latter case, it is not specified whether the paraplegic or limbless operators of the robots would handle their machines across a remote link or from armored compartments within them. Various types of robot vehicle — for instance the 600-tonne Godzilla lorry, an unmanned tank or combat aircraft, or perhaps an uprated “Bigdog” motorised war-walker unit — could carry their operators on board, so saving on bandwidth and electronic-warfare issues.


No doubt the idea of sending America’s many injured veterans back to war as robot operators — or even seeking volunteers to undergo surgery to suit them for the role — is far-fetched,” Page writes. “But we might at least get some kind of brain-reading hat interface out of this, able to translate our desires into movement commands and leaving our hands free for our guns to finally deliver a true First Person Shooter experience.”