Friday, January 4, 2008
This training organization I work with has, at astonishing expense, acquired forty sets of MILES. For those too bored to follow the link, that's the laser field training system the U.S. military (and increasingly, others) use so they can shoot each other without bullets. Its a complex, multi-part system, with control units and setup screens. We don't even have all the components (there are desktop computers that can track and record everyone's movement). The laser is emitted from this device that is strapped to the barrel of the rifle: It has a pretty transparent user interface (it shoots when you pull the trigger and a blank fires from the normal gun, in the normal way), and no GUI, so we'll ignore that, but there are three things that do have buttons and screens. Some are quite odd, so I thought I'd review them briefly. Starting with the simple one, everyone with a gun (and anyone else like a civilian or hostage) has a harness, worn over your uniform and other gear, and a "halo," strapped over your hat or helmet. The black dome things are the laser receivers. there are some on the chest harness also. The halo is dumb, and simply sends signal to the chest harness with an induction loop, so there are no cables. The chest harness has a little computer that interprets the signals, and does the appropriate thing based on if it got hit or near-missed. It beeps when you are dead, and kills the weapon so you can't shoot others. The computer has a little control interface on it. I only have this one terrible shot, and its boring, so I am not gonna review it much. It works like most of the simple menu driven interfaces, like your basic printer or something. Scroll arrows, enter key to execute functions. The "i" key is supposed to be pressed to turn it on, but its not needed; any scroll turns on the display also (to preserve battery, all these items are very inclined to go to sleep). It has lots of unlabeled functions. Tapping any key will silence an alarm. Holding enter down for 2 seconds toggles backlight. Holding both arrows at once initiates a count to turn on an alarm so controllers can find you. Like if you fall off a cliff. The CD/TDTD (don't worry about it, just call it a "god gun." Everyone else does.) is a free-standing device used by administrators when setting up the devices, and by observer/controllers (O/Cs) during the exercise. The system is modal, and softkey driven. There are a few obvious keys, like power and light (backlight), and the second column from the left are the three modes of operation. These are pretty clear, especially the Run mode, which is that used during exercises. Which is good, because it needs to be used rapidly, outdoors, in all weather, etc. The right side buttons are more or less normal softkeys. They vary between modal switches (just selection) and drilling down into sub-menus. In the Run mode, they are just selections (highlighted to indicate). Then you press the trigger to activate the function selected. Except they have one weird behavior, even in Run mode. See the parenthetical phrase (Cntrl Mode) after the NEAR MISS label in the image above? If you press the softkey again, you get that other function: Not sure this is a good way to do things. Its a way to multiply your functions, and they are often related to each other, but its got poor affordance. And I have never seen it anywhere else. I assumed that the parenthetical was another name for it, or something. A slash on the button, with a paren under it might be able to work: /() There are some other nice things tossed in there subtly. The Run mode items are all flush left. All other items are indented a little bit. At a glance the O/C can tell if they are in Run mode or accidentally in some administrative mode, without reading the actual words. The trigger is more or less the OK/Enter key. This makes sense, as usually a function execution involves sending or receiving codes through the front of the gun; its gun-like, so the trigger works great for this. When fired, lights come on the back to indicate it, and warn that you are emitting a laser (its marginally dangerous to eyes at under 10 meters). Unfortunately, the labelling is poor; the bottom line where it says "TR= whatever" is the trigger function. Sometimes its in code due to space and is hard to understand unless you are trained a lot. Oddly, the "OK" key is essentially a Back button. In most situations, it will send you back up one menu. The softkeys occasionally change to be other things, like scroll keys, as here when used to edit a number. Reasonably self-explanatory, but since its a behavioral change its a bit jarring. The main laser emitter is not the prod in the front, but a large, flush area below it. This is a problem for some testing; people who use these know that the frontmost part of a gun is the muzzle. In this case, that prod is a less-used IR data port. The last device we'll look at today is the ASAAF. This one we call "the ASAAF." No nickname, sadly. Its a massively fragile, fiddly device, and expensive as hell to boot. The Alignment Head clamps to the laser emitter on the rifle, and the Display Assembly is the control unit. Permanent cables tie the two together in a sorta clunky manner. To zero the lasers to the gun you are telling the unit what gun you have, and then a red aiming target appears. You press buttons to move it till its lined up with the sights on the rifle. Speaking of buttons, here they are: It seems that the left side array is a typical 5-way pad. I love seeing these made out of membrane switches. Then I try to use them. Here is as bad as it can be. You have to use it without really looking, as your eyes are occupied with the sights. Its quite hard to use. For other functions it's used a lot like a normal scrolling menu, like to pick the weapon system from a list. But its not a 5-way pad. The center Aim button is in NO way OK/enter. Its one dedicated function. Just like Align is a dedicated function. Pressing either of these makes actions happen to the mounted laser device, immediately, regardless of what else was happening. As far as the other two, Weapon Type pulls up that scrolling menu, and User is a setup screen, a heirarchical menu of options. There is no enter button, in fact. Selecting something makes it true. You just go to the next function that needed the value. This is not just weird and hard to understand, but its worse because its different than the other devices. In fact, that's my biggest gripe about the whole system. Not that any one system is hard to use, or requires training to really understand, but that there is no one UI paradigm. Each device is totally different from any other device.