My job, in the main, is to produce HMIs (human-machine interfaces) for equipment that’s mostly sold to the world’s Navies. Which is great – it’s a job I love, and appear to be reasonably good at. We toil away for months or years, producing a nice GUI with lots of clicky buttons, and usually, customers love it. Often the reason they like it so much is because the interface it replaces, the interface of their old gear, is a bunch of giant battleship-grey painted cabinets adorned with half the world’s supply of little flicky toggle switches. In a lot of situations, just being able to replace dedicated hardware with a general-purpose computer is great.
But why are we stopping there?
The movie industry is often mocked for its portrayal of computer interfaces – so much so that there’s a “Hollywood OS” page dedicated to listing their tropes. I suspect some people believe that, since military tech is thought to be significantly advanced compared to civilian tech, the world’s armed forces actually have systems like that.
Nope. They have Windows for Warships. Same shit you run, only in a sardine tin with 128 nuclear warheads on board.
But new recruits joining the Navy today come from a world of iPhones and Twitter and Layar and all the rest. They’re just as unimpressed with Windows XP and a bunch of clicky buttons as their predecessors are with a big rack of switches.
When the civilian population of the world can get push e-mail to their iPads, take laptops to a coffee shop and do everything just like they were at home, why do ships have so many functions that can only be done from one place? Tablet PCs aren’t new, even though it was only recently that Apple thrust them into the mainstream. Why doesn’t every crewman on every ship have one? One that lets them do their job wherever they are on board? One that alerts them when there’s something they need to look at, rather than the problem just being indicated by a light somewhere? One that contains illustrated manuals for every bit of equipment they’ll ever see? And there’s plenty more that could be done.
This is Link 22. Link is pretty cool. It turns an entire fleet into a data-sharing mesh grid, so everyone can share a radar display that’s a hundred miles wide. But the user interface looks like some early-90s Solaris horror. Every fighter pilot gets enemy aircraft marked on their HUD, why not ships? It’s not like we don’t have the technology to layer whatever we want over the windows in the Bridge.
Why don’t we plan missions and direct the fleet from Surface tables; real-time ship positions overlaid on satellite maps? Everyone hypes up the interface in Minority Report, that’s five years away, tops. Start the average big project now, and it’ll be available by the time we’re done.
Why don’t mine disposal operators have VR goggles to see what vehicles see, rather than just little monitors? Why can’t they overlay sensor data on their field of vision in real time? It’s no more expensive on the (exploding) vehicle end than what we already have.
With the world’s nose-dived economy and the usual – understandable – desire in the military to pick old and reliable over new and shiny, I can’t imagine I’ll get my chance to do any of this soon. But you know, if there’s some rich fledgling nation out there that wants their ships to run Hollywood OS, I’m ready and waiting.