Intelligence: iPods In Combat


August 6, 2008: The U.S. military went into Iraq with few troops able to speak Arabic. Now they can use their iPods to do the talking for them. A new software product, VCommunicator Mobile, and a speaker than plugs into where the ear buds go, enables troops to quickly access a library of phrases. There is also a set of protective covers for the iPod and speaker, with Velcro straps so that you can attach both to your arm.

If all this sounds very soldier-friendly, that's because the product was designed with the help of troops from the 10th Mountain division, who have been using 260 of these specially equipped iPods for the last year. This cost the army $800,000, and included language modules for Iraqi Arabic (it's a distinct dialect) and Kurdish (an Indo-European language spoken in the north). There are also modules for languages spoken in Afghanistan (Dari and Pushto). Over 700 troops are using the device in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VCommunicator Mobile software and libraries takes up four gigabytes per language, so it can be used on the smaller, and more rugged, Nano iPods. The software displays graphics, showing either the phrase in Arabic, or a video of a soldier making the appropriate hand gesture (there are a lot of those in Arabic.) There are collections of phrases for specific situations, like checkpoint, raid or patrol. You can use any accessory made for the iPod, like larger displays or megaphones.

The army has been developing translation devices like this since 2001. All previous ones needed a laptop or PDA (a device being made obsolete by more powerful cell phones). The VCommunicator Mobile approach took advantage of the fact that most troops had iPods and knew how to operate them. That saved a lot of training time. It was also discovered that many Iraqis were familiar with iPods, or had their own. They were fascinated by this use of the iPod, and this helped break the tension. While the translation is one way, but asking for "yes/no" answers, or directions (to an arms cache, a wanted man, or someone in need of medical help), the VCommunicator Mobile worked quite well.

While troops quickly pick up a basic vocabulary of phrases, the VCommunicator Mobile accelerates the process, as troops can use it to help them learn more Arabic (or Dari or Phusto). VCommunicator Mobile also comes with an editor, that runs on a laptop, enabling troops to edit their libraries, adding new phrases or reorganizing them.

The army has found that the troops can handle a lot of technology, if the stuff is actually useful. In that case, soldiers will often buy stuff with their own money. Not so much with VCommunicator Mobile, as it costs $2,000 to have an iPod loaded with just one language. The army has also provided a solar recharger for the iPods of troops spending a lot of time out in the hills of Afghanistan.


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