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Inside the Navy's Command Center of the Future

A prototype being worked on at a Navy laboratory in San Diego is showcasing the kinds of spaces that geographically dispersed military decision makers will use to plan strategy in the future.

A look across the so-called Navy Command Center of the Future, a prototype facility being built at the SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific in San Diego and which is intended to show senior decision makers in the Navy and other military services, what is possible when it comes to actionable working environments. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN DIEGO--I have seen the future of military command centers, and it is small rooms with glass walls and video screens with built-in artificial intelligence.

That's probably a gross oversimplification, but those are certainly some of the elements on display at the Navy's Command Center of the Future, a prototype project currently under way at the Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Center Pacific here.

For those not familiar with SPAWAR, it is a Navy laboratory tasked with "creating an unfair advantage for our war fighters," according to Jim Fallin, the facility's director of communications, that designs "systems, infrastructure, sensors and the means needed to create a fully netted combat force that operates and interlaces all the domains of warfare, from seabed to space."

With clients and partners that include the U.S. Army, Marines, and Air Force, as well as many universities and other institutions, SPAWAR is a growing--and hiring--research institution that aims to give America's military services "the ability to disrupt any adversary's ability to conduct warfare."

And given that these are the guys recently tasked with reworking the White House's famous Situation Room, they also seem like the right ones to take the traditional military command center--with huge rooms, row after row after row of desks with computers and huge video screens--and flip such environments on their head. In other words, SPAWAR has nothing short of a major assignment on its hands: to build the kind of center that will best serve the soldiers and decision makers of the future, all while minimizing the physical space necessary for such rooms and maximizing the use of technology.

Showcasing the technology of the future
The Command Center of the Future (CCoF), which has had a budget so far of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, first opened its doors just four months ago and is clearly not yet finished. But given that it's a prototype of the kinds of military action centers that are likely to be in use five or ten years down the line, it's probably best that the SPAWAR folks not rush to finish their work.

Upon entering what turns out to be a pretty small room deep inside a nondescript SPAWAR office building, visitors are greeted initially by a wall of military insignia and then by a dimly-lit, quiet, room with gleaming glass walls and banks of video screens installed behind the glass.

According to my host, SPAWAR research engineer Jeff Clarkson, who is leading the project, the CCoF has as one of its main purposes the highlighting and showcasing of the technologies of the future.

Notwithstanding the visit of a CNET News reporter, the typical visitor since the doors to the CCoF opened four months ago have included VIPs like Navy admirals, the secretary of the Navy, the chief of Naval Operations, and others eager to see the kinds of facilities likely to be featured on warships and in Department of Defense facilities a few years from now.

And the idea behind this room--which is far from operational--is to convey, in its small space, what a future command center may well look like, Clarkson said.

One clear goal of the CCoF is to show how military decision makers no longer need to be together in a single room in order to work on actionable intelligence, make strategic decisions, or communicate with subordinate personnel around the world. Rather, the room is designed to bring together those who need to be involved in discussions surrounding specific military engagements, regardless of whether they're local. Indeed, the room's very mission statement is to make it possible to rely on video teleconferencing and artificial intelligence in such meetings.

Now playing: Watch this: The Navy's Command Center of the Future takes shape

And while the CCoF is still in its early stages--its many video screens are still tuned to cable news channels rather than remote Navy locations--Clarkson and his team are hopeful that they will soon move to the next stage and build into the room the technologies that will showcase just how the people who will use it will interact with the tools of the future.

For example, while the video screens today are nothing more than TVs with shiny glass covers, they will soon feature multitouch overlays that will mean many of the glass surfaces will allow decision makers to manipulate data and other information simply by running their fingers over the glass, much as users of iPhones do today.

Similarly, while it's still in a presentation stage, the CCoF will be used for things like mocking up Flash representations of the control system of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) so that decision makers can see how much control they have over such assets from far across the world.

'The art of the possible'
Just after entering the room, visitors notice an area that is separated from the main space by its own set of glass walls. In normal circumstances, this is where to place junior staff members in front of a couple of computers.

But the idea behind this sub-room is to give decision makers a private, secure, place to go for classified discussions. And while it might initially be counter-intuitive to have such discussions in what at first appears much like a fish tank, Clarkson explained that in fact, that room is designed with glass that can automatically turn dark, as well as sound-proofing that can make it entirely secure.

And the point of this, Clarkson continued, is to make it possible for such senior officials to be able to huddle together for highly sensitive discussions without having to leave the command center, saving a great deal of time for everyone involved.

To be sure, this room inside this San Diego building is by no means a final product. In fact, even when future command centers are being constructed, they will likely have an infinite number of sizes and configurations that will match their surroundings: smaller rooms on Navy ships and larger ones inside Department of Defense buildings, Clarkson said.

But for now, as military VIPs show up to see the prototype, the idea is really to give them a sense of "the art of the possible," as Fallin put it.

Changing mission needs
Clarkson said that one of the major focuses of the CCoF is to prove that such an environment can be flexible and adaptable to "changing mission needs."

That means that the rooms need to be easily reconfigurable, something that is clear in how it was set up during my visit. On one side of the room, a group of eight chairs was set up as a place for seating junior staff while senior officials put their heads together at the main round-table.

But that configuration was just one way for the room to be presented, Clarkson said. And anyway, many of those who would take place in the kinds of discussions that would be centered in the room would be at remote locations, communicating via teleconference.

Yet Clarkson said even such virtual communication would be aided by the latest technologies. One such advance would be an implementation of artificial intelligence that would display, on the appropriate screens on the glass walls, documents being talked about by those on the screens.

In other words, Clarkson said, the CCoF would have AI meant to discern what is being talked about during a teleconference and to know how to source up whatever documents are needed as they're needed.

At the same time, the technology could also keep track of those on-screen and show, for the benefit of those in the room, little heads-up displays (HUDs) that identify each on-screen speaker.

And while the command centers of the future may be needed by senior officials to set strategy during specific action, they are also likely to be manned 24/7 by junior officials making sure that proper communications with supporting organizations are always under way.

Ultimately, Clarkson said, the state-of-the-art in command center workflow theory is built around the idea of flow. He explained that research has shown that decision makers think better if they can move around while they talk and that's why the CCoF here has been designed to allow such senior officials to walk and talk and never lose sight of those they're communicating with. In the past, by comparison, the experience has been much more sedentary, with officials coming in and sitting down at a table the entire time.

"We want to create a sense of guests and hosts being able to walk (around) together and still be discussing," said Clarkson. "They still have security and still have information, and they can look up something if (they) need it."

And while the command center of the past--like, say, the alternate command center of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)--has traditionally been a basketball court-size space with endless rows of desks, Clarkson said he hopes that the work being done on the CCoF will demonstrate that in the wars of the future, what's really needed is technology to bring dispersed people together so that they can discuss the important topics of the day, no matter where they are.

"We're just trying to show what's possible," Clarkson said, "what's coming down the pipeline, and what we envision the future to be."