Tuesday, January 29, 2008

iPods as Military Hardware Leads to New Civilian Uses

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for our soldiers that are deployed in war zones having the appropriate equipment to get the job done. But, I have to ask myself, are iPods really helping to get their jobs done?

According to Vcom3D, an Orlando purveyor of an avatar based authoring suite called Vcommunicator, the iPod is the perfect platform by which software written with their suite can operate. Mobile LC, as it’s been dubbed, is a program they've written to demonstrate the authoring suite's capabilities. It translates English to Iraqi Arabic or Kurdish language. More importantly, their avatars can indicate the appropriate gestures to go along with the phases. This translation technology has effectively been given an military field test, now they're morphing it into a translation application that’s more suitable for travelers than armed forces.

It’s true that the iPod is a good platform for this technology. iPods are cheap and readily available, but the translation application itself is a bit limited. Soldiers can only select from a list of predesignated sentences that are mission specific, like “open your trunk” or “U.S. Army please open the door”. It doesn’t seem very adaptable to the quickly evolving or escalating situations that regularly present themselves to soldiers at war.

Where're the Star Trek translator joints at anyway?

Two-way translation would be nice when you want to communicate with an Iraqi rather than just ordering one around. The blog entry from Vcom3D states “[knowing] local culture can mean the difference between life and death”. I guess the trick for the soldier is to make the gestures learned look natural, instead of it looking like an avatar taught them to you.

This is throwing a technology at a cultural divide that’s really too wide to be bridged by it. There would have to be a radical change in the Army’s culture to bridge that divide for real. This device will help, and may even save lives, but to really get at the problem soldiers would have to immerse themselves in the culture of the people whose land they occupy/liberate.

This kind of cultural immersion is not supported by U.S. military conventions. The military personnel communication technology, that has been so well funded and very well received by troops, connects up the soldiers to each other and their command in such a pervasive way that soldiers never have to develop cultural sensibilities towards the citizens of the land they're in.

Say, you got separated from you squad, in earlier days you had to depend on the locals residents to help you; nowadays your location is mapped on the command’s console and the Calvary arrives before you even get hungry.

This is great, if you’re that soldier, but think of the relationships that are lost because of this. Not to say we shouldn’t use these technologies, just deploy them with less of a ‘us and them’ attitude. The example doesn't even need to be that extreme, soldiers deployed in Germany for decades just stay on the base, all the time; it's that kind of culture.

To ‘win the hearts and minds’ it would help to seem a bit more connected to the people of the land through human relationships, rather than just being connected to a computer network.

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