If one looks at a typical deployable HQ (like those below from HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps at Innsworth) they appear to be the image of modernity, with multimedia displays and computer networks galore.
And yet despite the highest of high tech being available, one area that seems to remain resolutely in the last but one century is the map board.
Maps need to be detailed, have persistence, viewable in all conditions, large scale and very high resolution.
Paper, in these circumstances, is pretty hard to beat.
The problem with maps though is that they can only depict relief with contour lines, cannot be zoomed or panned, cannot utilise layers to display spatial data.
I am also intrigued by generational norms, someone walking into a HQ in the next decade is likely to be more familiar with Google Maps than Ordnance Survey Landranger Maps!
And so, progress is coming to the map table in the form of a number of technologies and one unlikely piece of equipment.
The familiar Kindle type e-paper display technology can produce very high resolution, wide viewing angle and high contrast images that require very little power, this is why they are so easy to read in comparison with other display technologies, but zooming and panning is very difficult.
Clipping together multiple flat screen monitors is possible but bezel width, power requirements, a lack of ruggedness and weight means a video wall is also unlikely to replace the simple map.
The holy grail of display technology is the high resolution, high contrast, lower power, full colour, low weight and foldable screen.
Organic Light Emitting Display (OLED) is a rapidly maturing technology but is far from meeting all the requirements, carbon nanotube and a host of other technologies continue being researched.
E-Ink has two main problems, low speed switching and the tendency to ‘ghost’ In e-book readers these are not especially a problem because they are fast enough for text (as opposed to video) and the ghosting artefacts are eliminated by flashing the screen black and clear momentarily before the new text is shown. For maps, these issues are not a problem but the main downside is a lack of colour.
Although E-Ink have recently shown a 32″ full colour display others are concentrating on point of sale advertising labels and other niche applications.
The market seems to be moving away from colour e-ink displays. Amazon has recently purchased a company called Liqavista who specialise in reflective colour displays.
Who knows where the market will end up but for now, paper, push pins and string rules.
At a smaller scale and with a focus on data manipulation rather than static map displays there also continues to be some very interesting developments that provide a glimpse into the future.
It is difficult to describe multi touch tables, even with images, so watch these videos for a good primer.
All clever stuff that is not the stuff of science fiction, it is here today.
Route recce with multi touch
The US Army has been experimenting with large format multi touch displays since the first release of Microsoft Surface (now renamed PixelSense) with the CERDEC hosted Multitouch Mission Command Working Group. They have been integrating systems like the General Dynamics Tactical Ground Reporting System (TIGR) with multi touch tables where information is transferred between them.
It has long been recognised that military HQ’s are data rich and information poor, the sheer volume of data, video, imagery and other information is simply overwhelming. Visualising data and especially data that has a geographic context is vitally important now and probably more so in the future as the contemporary operating environment gets ever more congested, cluttered and contested.
The potential of these systems is immense.
As a final look, the US Marine Corps has recently been experimenting with a system called an Augmented Reality Sand Box that uses an overhead projector, a Microsoft Kinect and yes, a box of sand.
Perhaps more of a training tool than planning, but interesting nonetheless
Read more at Marine Corps Times, click here
Lots of interesting technologies, most of them not quite ready for deployment, but the days of map pins are getting short.