18 December 2009

The Economist discusses military adaptation of consumer electronics

Military use of consumer technology: War games | The Economist
VIDEO games have become increasingly realistic, especially those involving armed combat. America’s armed forces have even used video games as recruitment and training tools. But the desire to play games is not the reason why the United States Air Force recently issued a procurement request for 2,200 Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) video-game consoles. It intends to link them up to build a supercomputer that will run Linux, a free, open-source operating system. It will be used for research, including the development of high-definition imaging systems for radar, and will cost around one-tenth as much as a conventional supercomputer. The air force has already built a smaller computer from a cluster of 336 PS3s.

This is merely the latest example of an unusual trend. There is a long tradition of technology developed for military use filtering through to consumer markets: satellite-navigation systems designed to guide missiles can also help hikers find their way, and head-up displays have moved from jet fighters to family cars. But technology is increasingly moving in the other direction, too, as consumer products are appropriated for military use.

more from the article
Apple’s iPod and iPhone are among the latest additions to a soldier’s kit. American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are using them for translation (one such device is pictured above) and to view intelligence information, such as pictures transmitted from unmanned reconnaissance drones. An iPhone app called Bullet Flight enables snipers to calculate range and trajectory for their shots, and built-in satellite-positioning allows local weather conditions to be taken into account. The basic version costs $3.99 and the full military one—which even calculates how the Coriolis effect from the rotation of the Earth will influence a bullet’s flight—costs $29.99.

In the fast-moving consumer-electronics industry, where some products are lucky to have a shelf life of more than a year, companies can spread their research-and-development costs across a global mass market. Defence contractors, however, usually supply only a limited amount of equipment designed to meet the specific requirements of a particular customer. Exports can help spread costs, but different countries demand different specifications, which pushes costs back up. Consumer-electronics companies also adopt aggressive pricing strategies to grab market share. The PS3, which now costs $300 in America, was initially sold at a loss by Sony in order to boost its popularity. (The company hopes to recoup its losses by taking a cut from the sale of each game for the console.)

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By: Brant

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