by Stephanie Overby

Boeing Adopts Sci-Fi Data Manipulation Model

Jun 08, 20123 mins
Business Intelligence

Boeing's defense business wanted to interact with battle simulations using the same sort of gestures Tom Cruise used in the movie "Minority Report." Now sci-fi has come to life.

The Project:  Implement a spatial operating system featuring gestural input and high-definition graphical output to analyze large data sets in real time and enable global collaboration at Boeing.

The Business Case: Boeing’s defense business wanted to record and play back its simulated aircraft battles so it could review with customers what each participant and weapons system was doing at any point in time–“like a giant DVR,” says Mike Kurth, managing director and chairman of Boeing Defence UK. Moreover, it had to “deal with terabytes of data a minute, comprised of multiple data types served up by multiple generations of IT infrastructure.”

Company leaders saw a real-world solution in the seemingly sci-fi system featured in Minority Report. “Anyone who saw the movie had to be impressed by the Tom Cruise character’s ability to parse through a visual wall of data on a big screen by simply pointing and gesturing,” Kurth says. “And it was real.” Oblong Industries, whose co-founder developed the fictional interface, was recruiting inaugural customers to develop corporate applications for what it calls the g-speak platform: an operating system not only capable of taking in gestural input and producing multi-display output, but also of providing data visualization, analytics and integration for multiple computers, screens and applications. “We were attracted by the gloves and gestures,” says Kurth, “but we stayed for the plumbing.”

First Steps:  The first g-speak application–the digital event recorder–was developed at Boeing’s Virtual Warfare Center beginning in late 2009. “We were able to analyze any event in space and time across the entire simulation, rather than being forced to do a laborious event correlation element-by-element across multiple independent systems,” Kurth says. “It saves months of time.”

In late 2010, Boeing began piloting Oblong’s Mezzanine collaboration tool (built on g-speak) for global customer projects. The system features three high-def displays that serve as a shared workspace. Multiple participants can manipulate elements on the screens via spatial wands, a browser-based client or their mobile devices.

“A critical element missing in every collaborative environment we’d seen was the ability to virtually reach in and interact with your collaborator’s environment,” says Per Noren, vice president of information services at Boeing Commercial Aviation Services, who has introduced Mezzanine in the United States, the UK, and India. “We call that ‘messing with your buddy’s stuff.'”

What to Watch out For :: Developing tools on top of Oblong’s application programming interface, which was still in heavy development, was tricky, Kurth says.

But the real challenge was getting comfortable with manipulating data in ways dramatically different than the IT organization had before. “We faced many challenges selling our ideas and documenting success,” says Kurth. Boeing worked with Oblong to document performance metrics and improve its software development kit.

Boeing wasn’t just adopting g-speak; it was helping develop it. “Joint invention between engineers is easy,” says Noren. “Joint ownership of intellectual property between companies is hard.” So the companies created contractual and operational frameworks to protect each company’s IP and keep the project mutually beneficial.