Innovators

The U.S. Army Tests Vibrating 'Smart Belt' to Help Soldiers Navigate


Soldiers in the U.S. Army of the future may not even need to hear a command to fire—they will just feel it.

In a piece of wearable technology that could also have uses for the blind, tourists, or even children visiting a museum, the military is testing a vibrating belt to help soldiers navigate in the field. It’s paired with a glove—something like the one Tom Cruise wore in the film Minority Report—that can convert hand gestures into signals received by the belt. “Move out,” for instance, triggers a sequence of vibrations from the wearer’s back to front.

During field tests by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Fort Benning, Ga., soldiers using the belt to negotiate wooded terrain responded as much as two seconds faster than those following hand gestures, according to a paper that researchers will present at a conference next month. Some also spotted more orange-flag targets.

The belly is an uncharted territory in the still-evolving wearable market, which may more than triple for manufacturers, to $30.5 billion by 2018, according to IHS Global Insights. Google (GOOG) Glass is going for the eyes, Samsung Electronics’ (005930:KS) Galaxy Gear smartwatch is attached to the wrist, and Bluetooth headsets have long claimed a place in the ear. Mike Payne, director of the experience design lab at Intel (INTC), told Bloomberg’s Olga Kharif last year that consumers may eventually carry around three to eight wearable computing gadgets.

While the torso isn’t as touch-sensitive as the hands or lips, it has other advantages, says Bruce Mortimer, research director at Engineering Acoustics, a Florida company that’s helping develop the belt for the Army. For one thing, he says, it’s always facing in the same direction as your body, so signals don’t get confused when you’re crouched or moving. There’s also evidence that touch works independently of other senses, so it’s a way for people to take in information with less risk of cognitive overload.

“If you get tapped on your left shoulder, even if you’re in a nightclub where there’s music blaring and smoke in the air, you don’t think, ‘Somebody just tapped me on my left shoulder,’” Mortimer says. “You turn to the left.”

The belt in development can be wired to a flip-down smart device that activates receptors around the waist. During tests, the device was loaded with global positioning waypoints guiding soldiers around 8-foot-tall brambles at night. Soldiers loved not having to stop as often to check the map, says Army researcher Linda Elliott. They saw uses for covert missions or for paratroopers regrouping after a jump, she says.

Still in an early prototyping phase, the belt carries no guarantee it will ever find a place on the waist of soldiers already loaded down with 60 pounds of gear. Since 1994, the Army has been trying to find the right mix of clothing, computers, and communications equipment through its Land Warrior program.

While the belt weighs less than a pound, “everything that gets onto a soldier’s attire has to earn its place,” Mortimer says. He anticipates commercial applications for hiking, navigation, or emergency response crews.

Roger Entner of Recon Analytics, himself a 1980s veteran of the German army, says the system’s accuracy will determine its success. Alerts must distinguish, for example, a dog from a person. If not, he’ll stick to checking a map with a flashlight and relying on his own eyes.

Robison is Seattle bureau chief for Bloomberg News.

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