Friday, June 8, 2007

Systems approach helps team win Soldier Design prize - SDM Pulse, Summer 2007

By Arthur Mak, SDM ’07

Over the past several months, I have found my SDM learnings invaluable for navigating the complex technical and managerial challenges of designing a new product: a portable mission planner that allows individual soldiers to rehearse missions in a virtual environment.
SDM fellow Arthur Mak, second from left, poses with his
prize-winning team. They are (from left) Aseem Kishore,
Jeremy Richardson, SDM fellow Nathan Minami,
Jason Vuu, Brian Wong and Albert Park.
Photo by Forrest Liau

This work was done for MIT’s Soldier Design Competition (SDC), whose goal is to generate new products and systems that will enhance soldier survivability and combat effectiveness. Sponsored by MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the competition is open to teams from MIT and from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Two talented undergrads, Brian Wong and Albert Park, generated the core idea—a spherical, surrounding computer environment to replace computer monitors, which are so limited in scope. They presented the concept for this complex system of integrated hardware and software to SDC judges, and the Atmosphere Systems team advanced to the finals.

With only five months to take the project from concept to working prototype, Wong and Park needed more resources. They asked Major Nathan Minami, a 14-year Army veteran and SDM ’06 student, to be the team’s mentor and lead user. Undergrads Jeremy Richardson, Aseem Kishore and Jason Vuu were recruited to develop hardware and software components. I was brought onboard to help with overall technology and IP development, using my system design background.

The key ingredient of the display system is its carefully conceived system architecture, which is built around the core display technology. The architecture allows the system to be portable, affordable, communication capable and quick to assemble and disassemble.

The initial design called for an 8-foot-diameter spherical screen to provide a 360-degree panoramic experience. In order to create a truly realistic battlefield environment, we used a computer with high performance graphics cards and relied on projectors to display the large imagery on the curved screen. Multiple projectors were required, so we needed to split the imagery signal from the computer into each projector to form one coherent image.

As the core of our technology offering, the display medium went through more than 10 physical iterations in terms of shape, size, material and support structure. Its form varied from an eggshell-like plaster constructed using an 8-foot inflatable balloon to an inflatable parachute. The final form is a cylindrical display built of metal frames and translucent plastic sheets, which can be assembled and disassembled within minutes.

On the software side, Minami’s advice ensured that our application met the military customer’s needs. We created a simple yet powerful set of mission coordination tools and used a 3D interactive device to allow users to “fly” through a realistic battlefield scenario to coordinate missions.

Unfortunately, when we integrated the system, interfaces became problematic—the short distance between the projector and the curved screen created distortions. We chose to fix this through optical and physical adjustments to the focus and concentrate the computer processor on generating high-resolution graphics.

Our most daunting challenges involved developing the system’s core technology in just a few months. We had to create complicated applications in an unfamiliar military domain and integrate the system components to generate a virtual application. I frequently found myself relying on my SDM education. Learnings from the Product Design Process class helped our team understand and utilize the lead user process. The System Architecture course formed the backbone of our system innovation and helped us to file a strong patent application. Coursework in Technology Strategy guided us in making rational choices throughout the development of our technology.

We also benefited from a core value of the program, the willingness of SDM students (like Minami, who patiently educated us about his military experience) to share their unique skills.

We learned many important systems engineering lessons during the process. The human operator, for example, is often a system’s most neglected component. In our case, safety concerns about air ventilation inside the display system forced us to open up the enclosed sphere design and use a cylinder instead.

On April 10, we exhibited our display to almost 30 Army judges at the SDC Final. Our team placed third, winning the $3,000 Lockheed Martin Award. The monetary prize is not nearly as important to us as the Army experts’ stamp of approval on our product feasibility.

Subsequently, we exhibited our first commercial prototype during MIT’s Science Showcase on April 28. Team Atmosphere is continuing to develop its virtual mission planner and had plans to incorporate in June.

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