Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gargoyle 0.1: Imagining The Mobile Intelligence Analyst's Workspace (YouTube)

"Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset...Nothing looks stupider; these get-ups are the modern day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society...The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time."

-- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992), page 123-124.

I have been thinking about some technology trends and how they are likely to impact the intelligence analyst's workspace recently. The vision that seems to dominate right now is what I will call the Minority Report version. There has been a good bit of progress with this model of the workspace and it appears to be on track to enter more-or-less mass use in the private sector in the near future.

The problem with this vision, in my mind, is that it continues to assume an analyst that will be largely stationary. Stationary does not appear to be the way the world is going, however. To me, a sleeker (less geeky) version of the Gargoyle option is much more appealing.

The MIT Media Lab recently demo-ed their Sixth Sense technology at the TED conference (See video below) which is moving in the direction I am talking about.

This is pretty cool stuff but it seems to require the user to attend to the output of the device in a very complete way. In other words, while you are engaged with the device, there is not much else you can do.

While I am not a big believer in the idea of multi-tasking (the ability to do two or more things at once with equal levels of efficiency), I do believe that you may be able to optimally allocate attention. The devices that seem to do this best currently are heads-up or head mounted displays.

These devices are well known to fighter pilots but they are also becoming a standard feature in high performance cars. There even appears to be an iPhone ap that does the trick on the cheap (for a more frightening version of what this means, imagine the implications of this video in heavy traffic on the Beltway). They are mostly for information display, however. In order for such a device to be useful to an analyst, it would have to be capable of robust levels of interactivity.

Surprisingly, there are a number of head mounted displays that allow a user to interact with a computer. Even the low end of the market can be hacked to make a workable Gargoyle interface (if not for daily use, then at least for experimentation purposes).

I put together the video below to give you sense of what such a low end system might look like built with components on the market right now. I didn't have a lot of time, and the overall quality of the video is pretty bad, but it should give you an idea of what I think it would take to get a working prototype up and running and where I think the engineering challenges are for the future of the concept.

The point of all this is that it is not a far-out, futuristic concept anymore. I am not a very tech-savvy guy and if I can build anything resembling a working model of a mobile workstation, then it can't be very far off.

Technology brings challenges as well as benefits, however. If we are not just going to dump this stuff on the analysts of the future, it seems to make some sense to start figuring out now how best to configure the hardware and the software in such a way that it is not merely more technology for technology's sake.

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