The military has long been an object of the video game industry's fascination. Titles like Call of Duty slavishly pore over the details of real-life weapons, technology, and terrain to create virtual battlefields for their users to wage war on. But in a case of reality mimicking art, the military has started to turn to the gaming industry for help — and not just for training, as one would expect, but for technology itself.
In the arms race for a better user experience, the $66 billion video game industry has become so advanced that in some areas it has outpaced the military. The gaming industry's state-of-the-art controllers, high-tech sensors, and processors have been co-opted, even weaponized, by the Pentagon.
Here, a few examples:
How Xbox Kinect can guard a border
In addition to interpreting dance moves and imaginary swings of a light saber, Xbox Kinect sensors are helping to guard the last remaining front of the Cold War, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea.
After a series of high-profile border mishaps, including a defecting soldier from the North who simply waltzed through the heavily fenced, mine-strewn, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ and knocked on a guard post, the South Korean military turned to the developer of the Xbox Kinect sensor for help.
While existing sensors along the DMZ were effective, they had difficulty distinguishing between animals and humans, resulting in frequent false alerts. Now thanks to Ko Jae-Kwan, who developed Microsoft's Kinect sensors that allow users to control games using their body movements, the DMZ's newest sensors are able to separate human and animal movement.
"For its price, the device is very accurate and effective in covering vulnerable areas," Ko said.
Planned upgrades include sensors capable of reading biometrics like heart rate and body temperature, features already included in Microsoft's Xbox One, which was released last year.
To succeed in the retail industry, video game makers must offer highly advanced technologies at affordable prices, which is partly why they are so attractive to the military.
In 2009, the Pentagon purchased thousands of PlayStation 3s to bolster its supercomputer clusters. According to Defense Department acquisition officers, the PlayStation's processor offered comparable performance to the world's most advanced chips but at one-tenth the price, making it the most viable option.
Using a Wii to disable a bomb
Meanwhile on the more hands-on side, several drone manufacturers have adapted video game controllers and interfaces to pilot drones as their designs have proven to be the best available.
It's no coincidence that Raytheon's Universal Control System, the complex command station that allows drone operators to fly, track targets, and launch death-dealing Hellfire missiles from thousands of miles away, closely resembles a hardcore gamer's ultimate setup.
In an effort to reduce accidents, Raytheon hired game developers to redesign drone "cockpits" by borrowing technology from the gaming industry including wrap-around wide-screen monitors, Xbox-based processors, and an array of familiar joysticks, switches, and thumb controls.
"Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs?" explained Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon's tactical intelligence systems. "The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction."
That is exactly why engineers modified a Nintendo WiiMote to control the Packbot, a bomb disposal drone used by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, after they realized the existing "joypad" interface monopolized the user's attention.
"Our tests show 90 percent of the operator's workload goes into driving the robot rather than keeping an eye on the sensor data," said David Bruemmer, a U.S. Department of Energy engineer who helped design the modified controller.
With the Wiimote, troops are able to control the robots more instinctively as the new control directly translates the movements of the hand into the movements of the robot, Bruemmer added.
Other battle-tested controllers include the widely used Xbox 360's, which Lockheed Martin modified by removing the logo to help British troops fly UAVs. The U.S. Army has also been spotted using the same controller for ground-based drones.
How virtual reality can alleviate PTSD
Beyond controllers, video games themselves have become effective tools to help veterans struggling with PTSD or even recover from severe burns. Where powerful drugs and other therapeutic techniques have failed, video games have proven enormously effective.
In an experimental treatment, soldiers recovering from severe burns were given virtual reality goggles to play Snow World, a specially designed immersive game that kept their minds off the excruciating pain of having their wounds cleaned or skin stretched.
"Sometimes patients are crying or screaming or begging for you to stop or pleading to God for mercy," said clinical nurse specialist Morrow. "[Snow World] really changes the nature of what we do."
Patients reported that they felt less pain when playing the game, required less pain medication, and had a greater range of motion in their burned limbs as their muscles were more relaxed.
The game is fairly simple, consisting of a 3D environment where players travel along a snowy path and throw snowballs at non-moving targets. The virtual reality headsets keep patients from seeing what's happening to their bodies and the game keeps their mind focused on playing the game rather than the pain.
Other specially-designed virtual reality games like Beyond the Front as well as mobile apps are helping to treat and diagnose PTSD. A virtual first-person shooting game offers vets a chance to return to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but in safe way that allows patients to conquer their past traumas and habituate themselves to experiences of fear.
On the less therapeutic side of shoot-em-ups, the Pentagon uses America's Army, a military-style shooting game, as a subtle recruitment tool. And, taking its cues from the Pentagon, China's People's Liberation Army released the not-so-subtle first person shooter Glorious Mission, which inundates players with fiery nationalistic propaganda as they slog through boot camp and ultimately face off against America in a bloody showdown.
As the military is proving, video games are no longer child's play.