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Oct 5, 2012
DARPA's new super binoculars improve threat detection
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The camera component of the CT2WS system.The Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS) was first proposed in 2007 by our friends at DARPA. Not surprisingly, the system—which is a lot like binoculars on crack—was initially nicked named "Luke Skywalker" for its Jedi like ability to detect threats. In statistical terms binoculars integrated with CT2WS performed 42% better than standard binoculars and/or camera based detection systems.

According to a statement from DARPA, "CT2WS was built on the concept that humans are inherently adept at detecting the unusual." Essentially this belief, which has been extensively studied by cognitive scientists, deals with how humans filter extensive amounts of data so that situational awareness can be maintained even in "noise" heavy environments. Combat Zones tend to be "noisy" in both a literary and figurative sense. This means the mind of the solider—using the system—perceives the risk of something that was viewed before they themselves internally translate the implications of the images they just observed. This breakthrough—actually more like a fundamental finally being mastered—addresses a problem that has been going on since the Dutch invented the first practical telescopes in the 1600s. Just because something was observed doesn't mean it was understood.

CT2WS combines a high-powered 120-degree video camera with an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset that actually monitors the wearer's brainwaves. It relays the information to a computer system, which in turn uses “cognitive visual processing algorithms” to detect irregularities in the visual field. The headset picks up the P300 brainwave, which is linked to decision making and stimulus evaluation and is the brain's way of saying that something is going on, even if the wearer is unaware. Turns out, these waves are pretty reliable: when CT2WS was tested alone, it produced 810 false positives. Combined with the EEG headset, that number was reduced to five.

Additional specifications from DARPA's wishlist included the ability to see at a range from 1,000 to 10,000 meters and  to detect moving vehicles from up to 6 miles away. One of the more difficult requirements was a target weight of under five pounds. Initially, the agency wanted to have prototypes in solder's hands within three years. With these specifications in mind, the project was formally started in 2008. The primary goal, improvement of threat detection using mobile and portable technologies, was actioned by academics at The University of California San Diego along with support from the private sector.

The EEG component of the system was designed by Quasar and used a special type of sensor that won't cause skin abrasions on the wearer, but doesn't require the use of conductive gels. The company says that the sensors are small enough that they can be worn under a bicycle helmet. HRL Laboratories, the R&D house that developed the algorithm for the system, is jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors and says that the algorithms and EEG decoding used in CT2WS can also be applied in vehicles for functions like controlling settings inside the car and helping to slow down the vehicle in emergency situations.

Like most other investments in technology, initially unseen advantages from complimentary scientific disciplines are being developed in tandem with the CT2WS that provide additional benefits. As with most projects focused on military use, benefits for the civilian sector are rapidly becoming more apparent. Regardless, you've got to admit—the ability to perceive threats even before they're classified as threats is not only very ninja, but also quite practical.

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