When I joined a group of teenagers wolfing down pizza in the cafeteria at Raytheon, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, they didn’t look like trained killers--they sported braces and misguided attempts at facial hair, not steely eyes and piano wire. But they’d spent thousands of hours perfecting a certain set of skills that made them perfectly competent at eliminating lives. We were all there to test out the Universal Control System, or UCS, the first piece of military-grade hardware inspired by and specifically designed for the video-game generation.
The UCS was designed by Raytheon to fly unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Predator drones that have been making headlines recently for their attacks in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The drones can find terrorists in the perilous mountain terrain that has stumped the British, Russian, and American empires over the last century, all while the pilot sits safely a thousand miles away. But as cool as the Predators are, they can also be bitch to pilot. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that more than two thirds of Predator drones are lost to pilot error, at $20 million a pop.So Raytheon set out to build a better controller. “We were trying to create something that, like a video game, you can use right out of the box,” says Chris Graham, chief engineer for advanced concepts at Raytheon, and an avid gamer himself. “If you've played Call of Duty or Gears of War, then this should all feel pretty intuitive.”
After the pizza lunch, we all headed down to a dark, frigid room filled with the hum of computers, a scary, Death Star kind of room. “Make sure everyone gets a chance to drive,” scolded their teacher, Mrs. Drake, as we crowded around the machines. The UCS rig is a big ergonomic chair with an individual temperature control extending over it like a roof and multiple screens connected to a mouse, keyboard, and several joysticks--basically a pornographic device for serious nerds. “How much is this?” asks a kid Connor. “I want this for Christmas.”
“Look Al-Asad!,” says 17-year-old Michael, pointing out a military airbase in Western Baghdad. “Dude, this is just like Call of Duty.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” replied his friend Bobby, reclining in the seat, his eyes tracking three screens simultaneously, his right hand moving the Predator’s sensor over a virtual Baghdad, his left zooming in and out. At the same time he’s rotating through a selection of missiles and bombs. “As soon as I walked in and saw this stuff I was like, ‘Man, this is the job for me,” he says. “It took me like half a second to learn--they just showed me which buttons to use and off I went.”
It was shocking how quickly the kids were able to control what was going on, that the experience of war could be made both virtual and immediate. I chatted a little with Michael Keaton, not Mr. Mom but a former Predator pilot and squadron commander whose code name is Batman and now works for Raytheon. “It's amazing after being in the field and seeing experienced pilots struggle with the controls,” he says, “to watch these kids come in here, and a few minutes later they are up and flying.”
Keaton is big on the UCS’s immersive quality. “This really helps you to project your mind into the battlefield, and that’s important when you’re flying a seven- or eight-hour mission and could get distracted or fatigued.” I asked a young student named Corey if he thought a seven-hour mission sounded tough. He laughed. “I would say when I get a new video game, 24 hours straight is pretty standard for me,” he says. It’s just your average weekend binge for a teenager with a new title; no sleep till you’ve beaten the game.
The minds at Raytheon see video games as just the first step in integrating the worlds of everyday technology and military hardware. “We definitely feel your iPhone, your Google phone, your Blackberry are all going be part of the battle space of the future,” says Chris Graham. Oh, like a “killer” app?
But seriously, it's like these guys are just way to deep into what they are doing to see how strange this all sounds. They seem to think that integrating war with consumer culture is the logical next step, and after watching how easy it was for these kids to operate the Predator, it's kinda hard to argue. I can just imagine a scene from the future where some general is talking to his wife, then takes call waiting, bombs the jihadist, and jumps back without missing a beat.
“Someday soon you will be able to control a Predator from your cell phone,” said Keith Little, the company’s spokesman. “How cool is that!”
Back in the pilot’s seat, Bobby started getting frustrated. The simulation wouldn't actually let him fire the Predator's many weapons. So Bobby jettisoned a missile, dropping it without firing. “It will still do something,” he says.
“Yeah, make a big hole,” Connor replies.
“Or hit someone in the head,” retorts Bobby.
“One terrorist down!” says Michael, and they all break into laughter. In the pause afterward, Connor turns thoughtful.
“We treat this like it so insignificant and childish, but you know, it actually has real meaning.”
I gotta say I was glad to hear this exchange. In the excitement of this massive new toy, I had kind of forgotten myself what we were playing at. Here was some self-awareness that what they were doing, if it were made live, would translate to violence in the real world. Bobby looked up briefly from his screens. “Yeah, it’s like, ‘Oh man we just killed 50 people!’ but then in reality it’s like, ‘Oh man, we just killed 50 people.’”