How Digital “Sand Tables” Will Guide Future Military Strategy

Throughout history, the use of sand tables has been common practice in rehearsing military strategy in the field. Built on piles of sand with scale models of operational units, the sand table has provided a basic, yet effective means for war gaming. For the U.S. Army, however, the times are changing.

altToday, military strategy and war gaming are conducted with a wealth of operational information that is constantly being collected and updated, from live video feeds to sensor and geospatial data. To support situational awareness in this modern environment, modern platforms are needed to allow users to effectively capture and interact with this information through a single point of view. This is a core vision behind the Army’s Command and Control Multitouch Enabled Technology (COMET) program, which aims to bring the sand table into the digital age.

Building a 21st Century Sand Table

To make this vision a reality, the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and En gineering Center (CERDEC), which leads the COMET program, joined Microsoft in 2009 for a research and development initiative focused on the use of multi-touch technologies to support command and control systems. As pictured, the result of this unprecedented research project was the development of a digital, multi-touch command and control interface. Using Surface — Microsoft’s touch-enabled display technology — the COMET interface is, in every practical sense, an advanced upgrade of the low-tech sand table. Designed to support the needs of the modern warfighter, the COMET interface provides several critical features to users in the field such as:

• Real-time Data: The COMET interface replaces traditional, static information sources such as paper notebooks and maps, acetate layovers, and physical models with a completely digital platform. More importantly, the COMET interface enables access to a broad set of live information sources such as sensor data, digital mapping, and video feeds. These capabilities provide users with a much more realtime and accurate picture of their operating environments.
• Interaction and Analysis: Using a variety of custom apps and widgets, the COMET interface also enables users to interact with situational data on a much deeper level. Leveraging these tools, users can manipulate displays and customize views and data sources to support the mission at hand.
• Intuitive Interface: Using a keyboard and mouse while in-theater is far from practical for the warfighter. The COMET interface puts this control at the warfighter’s fingertips with intuitive touch screen controls, allowing them to open ‘apps’ and move and manipulate data. COMET’s easy-to-use interface helps improve warfighter effectiveness and acceptance, while also reducing costly training requirements by making the user experience as intuitive as possible.