"Last week was Fleet Week here, so a few of us from Popular Mechanics walked over to Pier 88 on the Hudson River to check out some of the latest gee-whiz weaponry from the Office of Naval Research. I got an in-seat tour of the new Lightweight Stabilized M240 Weapon System, a swiveling rooftop gun mount for Humvees that's completely computer-controlled from inside the cockpit using dual joysticks and a large resistive touchscreen display.
I used the controls to perform a target lock on an unsuspecting civilian Fleet Week spectator, and as the rooftop turret followed the poor fellow around the area, I remarked to one of the ONR representatives how frighteningly similar the whole system was to a video game. He agreed, then showed me a military spec version of an Xbox 360 gamepad that was an alternate interface for the same machine. (It wasn't all that different from the one we thumbed to test drive the Army's robotic MULE vehicle from Lockheed Martin earlier this year.)
What an interesting evolution, I thought. For years, video games had been appropriating the controls of airplane yolks (Atari 2600 joystick) and guns (the famous "Duck Hunt" pistol)—interfaces common to military equipment—and now the military is using equipment that evolved in the gaming industry.
I contacted Mark Bigham, director of business development for Raytheon Tactical Intelligence Systems, to explore this trend in weapons development. Raytheon often uses Xbox controllers as an interface for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and Bigham has spent plenty of time studying the human factors behind gaming controllers. "There are a lot of important lessons to learn from the gaming community," he says. "In the past, the military far outspent the gaming industry on human-interface technology, but that's changed. It's never going to go back the other way. The gaming industry is such a huge market. The investment in R&D that they're going to spend on human factors is going to dwarf even what the Department of Defense will spend."
The gaming controller has had a long journey since it first showed up in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) of 1985 with its 4-way D-pad and two action buttons. (Some would argue, however, that the gamepad interface actually stretches back to Mattel's Intellivision of 1979 and the ColecoVision systems from 1982.) By today's standards of accuracy, these pads were pretty primitive. The real revolution came in 1997 with the introduction of the Nintendo 64 and its analog stick controller. The gamepad was big and bulky, and the stick was in exactly the wrong place (dead center), but it was the beginning of a new focus on precision aiming that eventually made console devices formidable platforms for first-person shooters. The N64 didn't sell anywhere near as well as its predecessor, but analog sticks took off, eventually finding their way into every major gaming system." (Continued via Popular Mechanics) [Ergonomics Resources]